Vita Bekker
The National
January 31, 2011 - 1:00am

The anti-government protests in Egypt are prompting concerns in neighbouring Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, last week ordered his cabinet to refrain from commenting publicly on the unfolding events in Egypt. But his statements to his government's ministers yesterday, the first spoken openly by an Israeli official about the situation in Egypt since the protests began on January 25, indicated his anxiety.

"We are following with vigilance the events in Egypt and in our region. The peace between Israel and Egypt has held for more than three decades and it is our goal to maintain these ties … At this time we must show responsibility and restraint," he said.

Egypt and Jordan are the only Arab countries that have signed peace deals with Israel. Egypt and Israel are in constant, mostly low-profile contact over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and other regional developments.

During the weekend, top Israeli military officials including the defence minister, Ehud Barak, and the army chief, Gaby Ashkenazi, held discussions about how a change in Egypt's regime could impact Israeli-Egyptian relations. Israel appears to be worried, media reports said, that not only could the security coordination between the two neighbours be affected but also that a new Egyptian government could tighten relations with the Gaza Strip's Islamic Hamas rulers, who Israel considers to be members of a terrorist group. It is also concerned that new leaders in Egypt would oppose Israeli naval ships passing through the Suez Canal, where they have operated in a bid to prevent arms smuggling from Sudan to Gaza.

The growing uprising in Egypt caught Israel by surprise.

Aviv Kochavi, head of the military's intelligence, told the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee last Tuesday, the day the protests in Egypt started, that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government was not under threat and would be capable of keeping the demonstrations in check.

Yesterday, the Yediot Ahronot newspaper criticised Israel's intelligence services for not predicting the possibility of the unrest in Egypt, writing on its front page: "How could the military intelligence and the Mossad [spy agency] not have anticipated anything and erred, again?"

The Maariv newspaper yesterday cited a 2008 Gallup poll showing that 64 per cent of Egyptians want Islamic law instituted in their country, compared to 14 per cent in Iran and seven per cent in Turkey.

The Jerusalem Post noted that the possible rise of the banned Muslim Brotherhood could spur Egyptian animosity towards Israel.

"If the Muslim Brotherhood grabs the reins … the impact on Israel will be immediate," it wrote. "The army will need to do major structural changes, new units will need to be created and forces in the south will likely need to be beefed up."

Any regime change in Egypt may also spur massive protests in Jordan and threaten Israel's peace with that country, and possibly prompt violence from the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, analysts said.

Amos Harel, a commentator for the Haaretz daily newspaper, who called the Egyptian protests the "nightmare" of Israeli intelligence officials, wrote: "It would be a new Middle East, but not the one we had hoped for. The Palestinians could also reach the conclusion that massive protests, together with limited violence, would advance their pursuit of a sovereign country without forcing them to wait for an accord with Israel."

But a possible cooling of relations with Egypt could lead Israel to pursue new regional alliances, possible re-igniting efforts to reach a peace agreement with Syria to its north.

Aluf Benn, the political analyst for Haaretz, wrote: "The more the Arab world gets washed up in the massive rage waves of the demonstrations, the more the interest of Netanyahu and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad will grow for a deal that would maintain what remains of the old regional order."


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