As U.S. secretary visited, Egypt's leader denied he had sent a friendly letter to Israel.
JERUSALEM -- A friendly letter from Mohammed Morsi, the new president of Egypt, to his counterpart in Israel was hailed here on Tuesday as an unexpected sign that Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood intends to maintain cordial ties with Israel.
That sign was fleeting, however.
In a day of diplomatic confusion that involved not only Egypt and Israel but also visiting American defense secretary Leon Panetta, Egyptian and Israeli officials contradicted each other's accounts of how or even whether the two presidents had communicated, leaving the state of relations roughly where they began -- in uncomfortable uncertainty.
The office of President Shimon Peres of Israel first raised expectations on Tuesday when it released a letter that it said it had received by fax from Morsi via the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv. The letter thanked Peres for his earlier letter of congratulations at the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan and expressed hopes for more cooperation with Israel on peace and security issues.
Later in the day, however, an official spokesman for Morsi denied in a statement to an Egyptian newspaper that Morsi had sent any conciliatory messages, and called reports of such a letter "slander."
The episode underscored the delicacy of ties between the neighbors, which have maintained a peaceful if publicly frosty relationship for three decades but face new tensions as Egypt comes more under the sway of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, once repressed in Egypt, has long been hostile toward Israel although its leaders have moderated their views in recent months. Among the Egyptian populace, antipathy toward Israel and support for the Palestinians runs deep.
The dispute erupted as Panetta, visiting both Egypt and Israel, declared that Morsi was "his own man," a sign of American support for a former leader of the Brotherhood.
But the denial, which came after Panetta left Cairo for Jerusalem, raised the possibility that Morsi and his aides were saying different things to different audiences, or that they were unprepared for the public scrutiny of any statements on Egypt-Israel ties.
Morsi's office has not explained what happened in any detail. But his official spokesman, Yasser Ali, said Israeli accounts of the exchange were fabricated.
The letter bore Morsi's typewritten name at the bottom, but it was not signed by hand.
Before leaving Cairo for Israel, Panetta met with both Morsi and Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's top military commander. The Pentagon chief said Morsi and Tantawi have a "very good relationship," despite the military's recent moves to limit the powers of the presidency.