CAIRO, Egypt - Egypt, Israel's largest and most important peace partner, downgraded its relations with the Israelis yesterday in a pointed warning that the intensifying war against the Palestinian Authority of Yasser Arafat was ratcheting up Arab resentment to dangerous levels.
The Egyptian government said it was suspending "all contacts" with the Israeli government, but that it would keep open a diplomatic channel to deal with the crisis in the West Bank.
The decision fell short of formally breaking the ties established in 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and was intended as much to placate rising frustration among the Egyptian public as to signal its own anger over the widening Israeli military campaign.
As the Egyptian Cabinet acted, a sixth day of demonstrations at Cairo University and on other campuses pitted students demanding the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, Gidon Ben-Ami, against riot police armed with tear gas and water cannons. At the Nile Delta university of Benha, 15,000 students marched and held prayers for Palestinian victims of violence. About 6,000 students at the Azhar Islamic university joined in a chant that asked, "Where is the Arab army?" A Lawyers Union group rushed into downtown streets, but were pushed back by police.
No injuries were reported.
At the same time, Palestinian leaders pressed King Abdullah II of Jordan to downgrade his kingdom's ties with Israel. With this strategy, the Palestinian leadership was hoping to orchestrate a concrete Arab response and a strong showing of support for their position as Arab foreign ministers were scheduled to arrive in Cairo for an emergency conference beginning as early as tomorrow.
In an unusually blunt conversation, a senior Arafat aide, Nabil Shaath, told Jordan's foreign minister Marwan Al-Muasher by telephone yesterday: "Marwan, I want concrete steps and not words." Shaath conducted this telephone conversation during an interview with The New York Times at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo. "I need a step that is better than condemnations and words of support," Shaath said.
Shaath is the planning minister in Arafat's government, but more than that he is a longtime political strategist in the Palestinian leader's inner circle. He told Al-Muasher that it would be best if Jordan acted quickly, so that Jordan's decision to downgrade relations with Israel would not look like it was forced by the Arab foreign ministers.
Shaath said the foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan "are the two people I am counting on." He said the Palestinian Authority was not demanding that Israeli embassies in the Jordanian and Egyptian capitals be shut down.
"There is no need to break ties, just downgrade the level of diplomatic ties," Shaath said. "I don't want anything more than this."
It could not be learned whether Jordan's foreign minister conveyed an immediate reply on whether King Abdullah will follow Egypt in reducing ties with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Senior officials in the Jordanian capital, Amman, have indicated they are considering a range of diplomatic options up to expelling the Israeli ambassador, but Shaath's remarks indicated an incremental strategy tied to new diplomatic efforts to end the violence.
He said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa, "has been giving me hell for four days now" in a campaign of what Shaath described as "intimidation."
He was not more specific, but Syria has at times sought to shape and control the Palestinian agenda with Israel to further Syrian and Lebanese interests with respect to territorial concessions and the repatriations of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.
With his entreaties to Egypt and Jordan and his complaints about Syria, Shaath appeared to be maneuvering between the hard-line and moderate demands by Arab leaders to respond to Israel's military offensive.
Syria and Lebanon were behind efforts yesterday to delay the Arab foreign ministers' meeting, noting travel difficulties from Malaysia, where many were attending a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference that was seeking to find international agreement for a definition of terrorism. It failed.
States such as Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen have pressed for Egypt and Jordan to break ties with Israel, and this pressure has intensified as the Arab foreign ministers begin gathering on the Nile.
Shaath indicated that Jordan was urgently trying to engage in "quiet diplomacy" with the United States that might involve the intervention of outside peacekeeping or monitoring forces, perhaps organized by the United States, NATO or the United Nations.
Discussions in the Bush administration toward creating such a force have made little progress.
The Egyptian Cabinet, which would not undertake a significant decision on relations with Israel without guidance from President Hosni Mubarak, called on the international community to "intervene immediately" and press Israel "to stop the invasion of Palestinian cities."
"The Cabinet decided to suspend all contacts between the Israeli government and the Egyptian government except for the diplomatic channel that serves the Palestinians within the framework of the efforts being exerted to save the situation," a government statement said.