ERUSALEM — Israel is “troubled” by the entry of Egyptian tanks into the northern Sinai Peninsula without coordination with Israel, a violation of the terms of the 33-year-old peace treaty between the two countries, and has asked Egypt to withdraw them, an Israeli government official said Tuesday.
The Israeli request was conveyed within the last few days, the official said, adding that it was likely that the Obama administration had made a similar approach to Cairo.
The Israeli official was speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the fragility of Israel’s relations with Egypt, already strained by the recent upheavals there. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last year stripped Israel of a trusted regional ally.
The reported request from Israel elicited contradictory reactions from Egypt. A spokesman for the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, denied receiving any complaints from Israel. Citing an unidentified military source, Al Ahram, the flagship state-run newspaper, dismissed the matter as a fabrication of the Israeli news media and said that the move had been fully coordinated with the Israeli military.
The dispute over the tanks’ entry into Sinai earlier this month appeared to be part of a delicate balancing act as Egypt’s new leadership, which is interested in changing the terms of the military aspects of the treaty, tests Israel’s limits. For its part, Israel seeks to encourage Egypt’s efforts to restore order in the increasingly chaotic Sinai Peninsula but without posing a threat to its own security.
With Egyptian forces in Sinai strictly limited by the military appendix of the peace treaty, the vast desert area has until now served as a demilitarized buffer zone. But Egypt has long chafed at the restrictions, contending that restoring security in Sinai, which is a joint Israeli-Egyptian interest after all, requires additional forces and heavier weaponry.
“It is clear to everyone that the Egyptians — whether they succeed in dealing with the terror in Sinai or don’t — at some point are going to ask to open the military appendix,” Alex Fishman, a military affairs analyst, wrote Tuesday in Yediot Aharonot, a popular newspaper. “The meaning of this is that the demilitarization of Sinai will be eroded, which is one of the most important anchors of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.”
Long bound by a so-called cold peace, the atmosphere between the two countries has grown chillier since the election of Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Adding to the uncertainty, Mr. Morsi forced out leading members of the military old guard this month, including many of the faces most familiar to Israel, in a move to regain political power that the military seized after the revolution last year.
The purge came soon after a brazen Aug. 5 attack by gunmen who opened fire on an Egyptian Army checkpoint in the northern Sinai Peninsula, killing 16 soldiers. The gunmen then exploded a truck packed with explosives at the border fence with Israel and drove an armored vehicle, also loaded with explosives, about a mile into Israel before Israeli airstrikes destroyed it.
The attack has underscored the urgency of the challenge that Sinai now presents for both sides, and added layers of complexity to an already fraught relationship. Israel says it has already shown flexibility, eager to encourage Mr. Morsi’s clampdown on militants operating in the peninsula.
“Israel also looks at the glass half-full,” the government official said. “It welcomes the new Egyptian assertiveness.”
Officials have noted that the military appendix to the treaty was modified two years ago, when the situation in Sinai began to deteriorate, to allow seven additional Egyptian battalions into the area, though Egypt has yet to fill that quota.
About a week ago, the Israeli cabinet authorized the use of Egyptian helicopter gunships in Sinai as the Egyptian military took on the militants. But the official said that the entry of the tanks was not coordinated with Israel, as required under the treaty.
Other officials said that it would be a significant overstatement to say that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was in trouble, and that Israel and Egypt had a history of working through their problems together.
One acknowledged that communications between the two might not be flowing as smoothly as before, given the new faces and the chaotic aftermath of the Aug. 5 attack. But he added that the American administration was encouraging Israel and Egypt to keep working together, as they have in the past.