What a change in Egypt’s leadership means for Israel

JERUSALEM — Two decades ago, Naguib Mahfouz, the late, great Nobel literature laureate, speaking to the Israeli newspaper The Jerusalem Post outlined a vision of close Egyptian-Israeli relations if Israel worked to solve the Palestinian issue.

''If we solve our problems, I believe Israel may prove to be useful [to Egypt]. This will make people forget [their animosity].''

Recalling the biblical days of King David and King Solomon, Mahfouz added, ''Close relations between Egypt and Israel are not a strange idea,'' observing that in ancient days ''there was friendship between them most of the time.''

Recent Middle Eastern history, however, has decidedly not evolved according to Mahfouz's vision. Relations between Israel and Egypt never really warmed up, while the chances for a settlement of the Palestinian issue have become more remote over the nearly three years that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in power. And now, with regime change and a sense of protracted uncertainty in Egypt, the cold peace is threatening to turn into outright acrimony and perhaps, Israeli pessimists forecast, complete rupture.

The ouster in February of Hosni Mubarak, Israel's de facto ally, the most recent protests in Tahrir Square, which are seen as weakening the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the parliamentary elections, in which the Muslim Brotherhood is expecting to emerge with the upper hand, are being viewed with concern, if not alarm, in Jerusalem.

Indeed, for the first time since Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin signed the historic peace treaty between the two countries on the White House lawn in 1979, there are now mainstream Israeli political voices describing Egypt as a potential enemy.

Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, an Iraqi-born former defense minister who was close to Mubarak, was quoted in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper two weeks ago as saying of the situation in Egypt: ''We are in the midst of an earthquake and I still cannot see it subsiding, definitely not in the near future when elections are on the horizon. Today, it is clear that for the first time in history, the Muslim Brotherhood will win at least a third of the seats. Islamization is taking the place of nationalism.''

Ben-Eliezer, a member of the Knesset from the left-of-center Labor Party, added: ''We are in a situation whereby no one can predict what the new Egyptian leadership will look like. We must take into account that we may find ourselves in a confrontation with Egypt.''

Leading analysts voiced doubt as to whether there would be a military clash in the foreseeable future, but they did agree that diplomatic relations will worsen in the event of a Muslim Brotherhood victory, perhaps to the point where Egypt would eventually sever relations with Israel entirely.

''Egypt is so poor economically that its rulers will have to make their best efforts in the coming years to stabilize the economic and domestic situation,'' said Eli Shaked, Israel's ambassador to Cairo from 2003 to 2005. ''Population growth is 1.5 million babies a year. Slogans about the Zionist enemy will not bring food to the poor Egyptian. So this goes against war.''

But, Shaked added, ''Egypt's cutting relations with Israel a year from now is a possibility that shouldn't be excluded. The Muslim Brotherhood could act against Israel in a political way rather than a military one. From my experience in Cairo, I've seen the amount of hatred of Israel in the Egyptian street. The Muslim Brotherhood might get the idea that cutting relations with Israel would be a popular step among the masses.''

The Israeli army, for its part, also may now be taking into account in its contingency planning the possibility that Egypt could abrogate the peace treaty. According to a front-page report in the Maariv newspaper on Wednesday, army chief-of-staff Benny Gantz on Tuesday presented cabinet ministers with various scenarios, including one in which Egypt might scrap the peace treaty. Gantz, according to the paper, told the ministers this was an ''extreme possibility.'' An army spokesman denied Gantz had raised the possibility that the treaty would be nullified.

But government officials, while not endorsing Ben-Eliezer's dire prediction, say they are worried about the changes in Egypt. ''We see forces in Egypt that are very much against the peace,'' said one official, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood.'' We fought wars with Egypt in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. Thousands were killed. We don't want to go back to a situation of conflict.''

''We hope any future government will continue to honor the peace and we think all responsible members of the international community should give a clear message to future Egyptian governments that the international community expects it to honor the peace treaty.''

The official said that since Mubarak's ouster, there have been some ''challenges'' in relations, foremost among them the September storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which forced the evacuation of then Ambassador Yitzhak Levanon and the embassy staff. The health ministry said there were 1049 injuries as a result of the clashes around the embassy, which took place amid widespread fury over the Israeil army's killing of five members of the Egyptian security forces in Sinai in the aftermath of an infiltration attack that left nine Israelis dead. Last month, Israel belatedly apologized for killing the Egyptians.

Despite the challenges, the official said, ''We have good coordination with the transitional military government and they have reiterated Egypt's commitment to peace.'' However, there is concern that the elections will change this, with Netanyahu recently pointing to the Islamist Ennahda Party's victory in Tunisia and voicing hope that it is not a harbinger of what is to come elsewhere.

Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, captured the feelings of many Israelis towards Egypt's going to the polls. ''While on the one hand we welcome democracy, we have to be troubled that it will bring to the fore the Muslim Brotherhood with its anti-Israel and anti-Jewish platform.''

The concern is two-fold. First, the impact of an Islamist victory on bilateral ties, and second the likelihood that it will boost Islamic fundamentalists throughout the region, including Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan.

Until recently, Egypt had been no less than an anchor for Israel. ''Egypt is a cornerstone of Israel's regional policy and strategic well-being,'' Alpher says. ''The peace on our southern border has enabled us to reduce the military budget, the amount of days army reservists have to serve and it has contributed to economic prosperity. It has enabled us to focus on alternative threats, be they from Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or Hamas.''

In Alpher's view, there has already been a ''tactical break down'' in some aspects of relations, reflected in heightened smuggling into Gaza and the sense that Egypt is no longer in full control of Sinai.

Concern that infiltrations into Israel from Sinai could remain a source of friction and possible escalation of tensions in the future was heightened when two Egyptian soldiers were killed in border incidents recently. According to the Israeli army, two infiltrators, believed to be drug smugglers, were responsible for the killings. Israeli troops fired at the legs of the infiltrators, causing them to flee back into Sinai, but did not fire across the border, the army said. Still, Israel was concerned it would be blamed for the killings and that this would further poison relations with Egypt.

The uncertainty over Egypt's future is prompting gloomy prognostications, even if seen as improbable at the moment, of Israel returning to a state of siege. ''The worst, worst scenario is that there will be Islamic regimes on all our borders,'' says Alpher. ''This would take us back to the years before 1967 when we were surrounded by regimes that preached our destruction. Until a year ago, this was not conceivable. Today it's conceivable, though not likely. The problem is not just Egypt, it's the whole region.''

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