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.