JERUSALEM - Egypt, bowing to Arab world wrath over an Israel-Palestinian conflict that grows steadily worse, announced yesterday that it was recalling its ambassador to Israel.
The move by President Hosni Mubarak downgrades Israel's most important tie with the Arab world. Egypt, in 1979, became the first Arab nation to make peace with the Jewish state. Its ambassador of 14 years, Mohammed Bassiouny, has been a symbol of the cool, but steady relationship that has withstood anti-Israel pressures.
"The excessive use of force is going beyond any reasonable limit," Egyptian spokesman Nabil Osman said yesterday. "There is a clear message to Israel."
Since the Palestinian uprising broke out Sept. 28, Egypt has used its powerful influence to prevent Arab states from taking collective action to damage Israel, maintaining full diplomatic ties despite rising anti-Israel sentiment throughout the region.
Meanwhile, Mubarak has played what Israel and Western governments believe is an important role as a bridge between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to prevent a slide toward all-out war.
But the cease-fire agreement he helped President Clinton broker Oct. 17 at Sharm el-Sheik quickly collapsed amid Israeli and Palestinian finger-pointing, and the weeks since have brought an escalation of violence.
Monday, Israeli helicopters launched their heaviest raids to date against Palestinian targets, blasting military, intelligence and Fatah Party buildings and a television transmitter. Palestinians say two people were killed.
The airstrikes were intended to punish the Palestinian Authority for a terror attack on a Jewish settler school bus that killed two adults and wounded three children. A Palestinian human rights group reported two more Palestinian deaths in clashes yesterday.
Osman accused Israel of failing to live up to the commitments it made at Sharm el-Sheik to restrain its soldiers and pull its forces back from Palestinian towns and said Israeli counterattacks against the Palestinians were out of proportion to any provocation.
"There is no equation between stone-throwing and gunships and tanks firing to kill," he said. Questioned about Monday's attack against a school bus, he replied: "Mubarak has been warning that as long as agreements are unimplemented, violence will set in."
He didn't say how long the recall will last: "Nobody can tell."
Egypt last recalled its envoy for eight months in protest at Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon at a time when it had a charge d'affaires, not a full ambassador. The strains were aggravated by a territorial dispute over the Taba sea resort between Israel and Egypt. Full diplomatic ties weren't restored until the two countries resolved the problem in 1986 and Bassiouny was appointed ambassador.
"I am not, of course, happy about the fact that Egypt has decided to recall the ambassador, and I express my hope that it will be for a short time," Barak said.
"This is quite serious," Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami told Israel radio, adding that Egypt "has, and will have, a very central role in stabilizing the situation, perhaps even in creating the conditions for reaching an agreement."
But he also said the decision "will impair Egypt's ability to continue and fill this very important role it has in the peace process."
Said Osman: "Egypt does not need an invitation from anyone to play a pivotal role in the peace process."
Mubarak's action was the latest sign of international frustration with a crisis trapped in a cycle of action and reaction that seems all but impervious to outside mediation. Repeated attempts by Clinton to bring an end to the violence have failed, all but dooming his chances of brokering a peace accord before he leaves office.
Despite Egypt's moderating role in the region, its relations with Israel have never been warm. Its masses and educated elite remain for the most part hostile to Israel, and hopes for vibrant economic and cultural ties have foundered.
The United States urged Egypt to reconsider its move. "It's now more critical than ever for those in the region who are committed to peace to remain engaged despite the difficulties and all the differences," said White House spokesman Jake Siewert said. "Engagement is needed to help cool the situation and serve as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians."
Clinton spoke yesterday by phone with King Abdullah II of Jordan, which also has diplomatic relations with Israel. "Both leaders agreed to continue working with both parties to break the ongoing cycle of violence," national security spokesman P. J. Crowley said.
Winding up a weeklong trip to the Persian Gulf and Mideast, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was to see Mubarak today.
"The message that Secretary Cohen is delivering to everybody - this is the message of the U.S. government - is that everybody has to work diligently for peace," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon. "That means working with the Palestinian Authority as well as with Israel to try to convince them to stop the fighting and get back to the bargaining table."