Egypt Islamist leader cautious on Gaza

Morsi tries to avoid antagonizing U.S.

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CAIRO -- Egypt's Islamist president may hail from the fiercely anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Gaza's Hamas rulers. But in his first major crisis over Israel, he is adopting a stance not unlike that of his ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, Israel's longtime friend.

After Israel launched its ferocious campaign of airstrikes and shelling against Gaza in retaliation for militant rocket attacks, Mohammed Morsi recalled Egypt's ambassador to Israel in protest and on Thursday ordered his prime minister to head to the tiny Palestinian territory in a symbolic show of solidarity.

Mr. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, is facing calls at home to take stronger action. But he is just as wary as Mubarak was about straining ties with the United States, Israel's top ally. Moreover, powerful parts of Egypt's ruling establishment, particularly in the military and security forces, deeply oppose Hamas, and Mr. Morsi could face a backlash if he appears to move too strongly in the militant group's direction.

In past conflicts between Israel and Arab nations, Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood loudly denounced Mubarak for too timid a response, demanding, for example, the Israeli ambassador's expulsion from Cairo. The group often accused Mubarak of toeing Washington's line on Israel.

But in his first public comments Thursday on the crisis, Mr. Morsi was subdued, almost conciliatory. He called the bombardment an "unacceptable aggression," but avoided sharp condemnations of Israel. He expressed support for Gaza Palestinians but did not refer to Hamas.

"We don't accept the continuation of this [Israeli] threat and aggression against the people of Gaza," he said in comments at a Cabinet meeting aired on state TV. "The Israelis must realize that we don't accept this aggression and that it can only lead to instability in the region."

Mr. Morsi also said he spoke early Thursday with President Barack Obama about stopping the assault and how "peace and security could be achieved for everyone without aggression."

The tame response could be out of pragmatism. Egypt does not want to be seen as fueling the Gaza crisis and has a strong interest in securing the goodwill of the international community, particularly the United States, as it seeks massive injection of foreign investments and aid to kick-start its ailing economy. The United States is Egypt's chief Western backer, giving it $1.3 billion a year in military aid and $250 million in economic assistance.

Washington's goodwill is also needed to secure a key $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. An IMF team is now in Cairo to negotiate the loan.

Mr. Morsi could come under greater pressure for a tougher response if the onslaught worsens. But so far, his response has not gone beyond what Mubarak did in the past.

Mubarak, who was overthrown in early 2011, twice ordered home his ambassador to Israel, once over the Jewish state's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and again in response to Israeli repression of the Palestinian uprising that began in 2000. In both cases, he used fiery rhetoric to denounce Israel's actions but remained firmly committed to his country's U.S.-sponsored 1979 peace treaty with the Jewish state.

On Thursday, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, Atef Sayid al-Ahl, arrived back in Cairo, saying he was back for consultations with Mr. Morsi and that the embassy in Tel Aviv was still operating.

The dispatch to Gaza of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil was a notable symbolic gesture, the highest-level Egyptian official to visit Gaza since Hamas took over the territory in 2007. But it remained largely symbolic, given that the prime minister's authority is dwarfed by the president's overwhelming powers.

Mr. Kandil was ordered to head to Gaza today, heading a delegation to meet the "urgent humanitarian needs" of Gaza residents, according to state TV. The move is likely to be criticized by Mr. Morsi's foes, contending that the president is showing more concern for Palestinians living under his Hamas allies' rule than toward millions of Egyptians hit hard by the nation's worst economic crisis in years.

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