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Levanon Speaks

In his first U.S. interview, Yitzhak Levanon, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, recalls the 13-hour riot that led to the evacuation of his embassy

Judith Miller
September 15, 2011
Protesters burn an Israeli flag during a protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.(Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Protesters burn an Israeli flag during a protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.(Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Yitzhak Levanon, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, was just sitting down to his Sabbath dinner of schnitzel at his residence in suburban Ma’adi when the phone rang. One of the six security officials guarding the Israeli Embassy in downtown Cairo, which had closed for the weekend, was on the line. They were in trouble.

An angry mob of some 3,000 Egyptians had arrived at the embassy from what had been a peaceful protest at Tahrir Square. Turning on his television, Levanon surveyed the scene. Carrying hammers, axes, and steel rods, the crowd was screaming anti-Israeli slogans and starting to breach a tall cement wall that Egyptian security forces had hastily built on a bridge overlooking the embassy entrance several days earlier, to secure the building. Egyptian police and military security—complete with armored tanks and cars—were deployed outside the apartment building in which the embassy is housed. But the live footage of the assault being broadcast by Al Jazeera showed that Egyptian forces were doing nothing to stop the attackers.

The 5 p.m. call to Levanon marked the beginning of a 13-hour drama, for him and other members of his 85-person staff, that has both intensified the deep gulf in Israeli-Egyptian relations and smoothed tensions between Israel and the United States. President Barack Obama; his newly minted ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson; and other American officials played a crucial role in mobilizing Egypt’s transitional government and taking other steps to save the besieged Israelis.

In an exclusive telephone interview today from Tel Aviv, Levanon described his role during the crisis—his fears for the six security guards trapped in his embassy, and some of his frantic efforts to save them. He says that after the first panicked call from embassy security guards, his phones rang off the hook. As Levanon tried to get Egpytian officials on the phone to seek their help in containing the mob, Israeli officials from a command center at Israel’s Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem monitored the growing crisis and called him constantly.

At about 7 p.m., the Israeli security guard called again. “He told me that the cement wall had been breached, that there was now a hole in the wall, and that it was just a matter of hours—maybe two or three—before the wall would crumble and the mob would enter,” Levanon recalled.

The situation had grown steadily worse after reporters from an Al Jazeera satellite channel called Al Jazeera Mubasher, or Al Jazeera Live in English, arrived at the embassy to broadcast the attack. The live footage seemed to encourage others to come out and join the mob, which grew steadily throughout the night.

Levanon said he managed to reach a few Egyptian officials, whom he would not identify. But other sources said they were relatively junior officials who were in no position to order Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to help the Israelis.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had arrived at the command post to personally monitor the deteriorating security situation at the embassy in Cairo. He and Levanon spoke about the unfolding situation by phone. When the wall was breached and the rioters entered the embassy, Jerusalem issued the order to evacuate the embassy’s diplomats and their families and staff, who had quietly made their way to the airport. There, they boarded a waiting military plane that Netanyahu had sent to Cairo—the same plane that President Anwar Sadat had used on his historic trip to Israel that led to the 1979 peace treaty.

“The phones were now ringing like crazy,” Levanon recounted. “We knew that time was running out. The security officer called again to say that ‘They’ve broken into the embassy! They’ve broken into the embassy!’ The situation was now grave. I was scared to death for them. I kept calling everyone I could reach, screaming, begging them to do something to stop the ransacking of the embassy.”

After Netanyahu failed to reach Field Marshall Muhammed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s defense minister and de facto head of state, or other senior security officials, he called Obama. Watching the attack on television, Levanon saw Hebrew-language documents being thrown out of the embassy windows to the cheers of jubilant Egyptians below. Levanon, who speaks fluent Arabic, understood their chants—and his alarm for the security guards exploded.

One of them had spoken earlier that night to Netanyahu. He asked the prime minister for a favor: If he were killed, would the prime minister personally break the news his parents rather than let them hear the news on the radio? The security guard’s name was Jonathan, the same as the prime minister’s older brother, who died in 1976 rescuing over 100 hostages being held by Palestinian terrorists at Entebbe. In reply, Netnayahu told him: “Yonatan, be strong. I promise you that the State of Israel will do everything in its power and will use all possible resources in the world in order to rescue you and your friends unharmed and whole from this situation. ”

Sometime after 10 p.m., U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson called Levanon to recount her efforts to rouse Egyptian officials and to offer unspecified additional assistance. By now, Egyptians were running amok through one of the embassy’s two floors. Only a single reinforced metal door on the second floor, where the six embassy security guards were stationed, stood between them and the mob.

Then came the good news. The Egyptians had apparently answered calls from the U.S. ambassador, and commandos were on their way to the embassy to help extract the trapped Israelis. Coordinating with the commandos, the Israelis devised a code that would let the Israeli guards know when their rescuers had reached the door. “They had to determine that they were the good guys, not the bad guys,” Levanon said.

The commandos had with them galabiyas, the flowing robes that many Egyptians wear, head dresses, and other Egyptian garb. Disguised as Egyptians, the Israeli guards were spirited out of the besieged embassy and through the screaming mob outside.

Meanwhile, Levanon had assembled his staff and their families, including 27 children, on the plane at the airport. But he waited for word that the six Israelis were safe before permitting the plane to take off on the hour-long flight home. The plane touched down in Israel at roughly 6:30 a.m. In a Saturday night TV broadcast, Netanyahu publicly thanked both Obama and Patterson for their help, which was crucial in getting the six embassy employees out alive.

Egyptian officials now acknowledge that their security services’ initial lack of response to the assault on the embassy has created a “credibility crisis” for Egypt over its ability to protect diplomatic compounds as international law and tradition require and to maintain security within its own borders. The incident has “damaged Egypt’s image and its international reputation,” acknowledged Osama Heikal, Egypt’s minister of media, whose transitional military government has used the incident to extend a much-hated emergency law and take other steps to suppress free speech and other civil liberties for which the Egyptian protesters who overthrew Hosni Mubarak have campaigned.

While Israeli diplomats and other Israeli and American officials have declined to comment on some aspects of the rescue mission Friday night and Saturday morning, Levanon called the 13-hour episode among the most trying of his diplomatic career. But now that his ordeal is over, he says that he hopes to return to Egypt as soon as possible.

“What happened in Cairo was very serious,” Levanon told me. “It should never have happened. But we still have a peace treaty with Egypt and the framework of our relationship is intact. The prime minister and foreign minister have both expressed a desire for me to return—as soon as security and protection assurances are provided by the Egyptians.”

Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is the author of the memoirThe Story: A Reporter’s Journey.