-- General Douglas MacArthur
With six Israeli security guards fending off an angry mob rampaging through the mission, Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, tried for two hours to get hold of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's de facto head of state, to demand an immediate rescue operation.
Aides told Mr Panetta that the general could not be found, Israeli officials were quoted as saying. The response prompted fury in Washington, and threats of US retribution. Field Marshal Tantawi's mysterious disappearance intensified speculation that Egypt's generals had deliberately failed to protect the embassy for political gain.
The armed forces, which are running Egypt until a civilian government is elected at the end of the year, are thought to be desperate to retain the political influence and financial privileges they enjoyed under President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled by protests in February.
Officials in Israel, as well as a number of political activists in Cairo, have claimed that Field Marshal Tantawi turned down an opportunity to rein in the violence at the embassy in order to prove that, without a strong army, Egypt would descend into violence and anarchy.
Israel was forced to send military aircraft to Cairo to evacuate its ambassador and more than 80 diplomats after a mob, angered by the killing of three Egyptian border guards by Israeli forces last month, laid siege to the embassy. As the Egyptian police and army stood by, unwilling or unable to intervene, the rioters broke through the mission's defences and ransacked the building. The incident has plunged relations between Israel and its oldest Arab ally deep into crisis.
Fresh details disclosed yesterday showed how narrowly an even more serious incident was averted. Both Israel and America appeared concerned that the indecent could spiral into a repeat of the US embassy siege in Tehran after the Iranian revolution of 1979, when 42 US diplomats were held hostage for 444 days.
Mr Panetta was able to reach Field Marshal Tantawi shortly after one o'clock on Saturday morning, warning the Egyptian of "serious consequences" if any of the Israelis was killed.