Is regime change in Egypt a threat to Israel?
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Israeli officials watching the recent upheavals in Egypt are fretting over a possible destabilisation in the region. But some analysts believe Israel only stands to gain if its southern neighbour finally has a democratically elected government.
As Egypt wrestles with unprecedented public opposition to President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, its northern neighbour has been warily watching as the world’s largest Arab nation rises against one of Israel’s most implacable, steadfast Arab allies.
Israeli alarm bells have been ringing increasingly loud in recent days with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stating on Sunday that peace between Egypt and Israel, “has lasted more than three decades. Our goal is that this continues."
The very next day, the message was starker. "In a time of chaos, an organised Islamic group can take over the state,” said Netanyahu during a press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “It happened in Iran and it also happened in other places."
Mubarak has been a dependable partner to Israel and the US in ensuring regional stability in the struggle with the ‘resistance front’ led by Iran.
While Israel’s other Arab neighbours have seen an increasing Iranian influence over Hezbollah in Lebanon and close Damascus-Tehran ties, Mubarak has been a bulwark against the Shiite state.
A reliable Israeli partner, Mubarak even faced down widespread Arab outrage over Egypt’s failure to open its border with Gaza during the 2008-2009 Israeli invasion.
There’s a lot at stake for Israel and according to local media reports, Israeli diplomats are taking no chances even as they avoid publicly commenting on the issue.
In an article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, unnamed senior Israeli officials said the Foreign Ministry had issued a directive to key embassies in the US, Russia, China and several European countries telling their diplomats to stress the importance of Egypt’s stability to their host countries.
No fundamental threat to Israeli-Egyptian relations
Israeli-Egyptian friendship goes back more than 30 years, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to sign a peace agreement with the Jewish state in 1979.
Two years later, Sadat was gunned down by Islamist soldiers in his army while his vice president Mubarak stood - and then ducked - besides him.
Sadat’s vice president then took over the presidency and has stayed faithful to the peace accord ever since.
Israel’s concerns are "perfectly understandable” given the sudden and rapid developments in Egypt, said Mansouria Mokhefi, head of the Mideast and North Africa programme at the Paris-based IFRI (Institut Français des Relations Internationales).
But she believes that if there was a regime change in Egypt, Israel could emerge the winner.
“In the medium and the long term, a democratic transition would be beneficial to the peace process, which is completely stalled," said Mokhefi.
According to Nadim Shehadi of the London-based Chatham House, an international think tank, a fundamental rethink of Israeli-Egyptian relations was “highly unlikely” especially since few Egyptian officials – particularly the Egyptian military – have any appetite for a military confrontation with Israel.
Fears of a domino effect
The prospect of the rise of Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood - the officially banned yet tolerated Islamist group - is being furiously discussed in the Israeli press.
“If there were democratic elections tomorrow, there’s little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood could get power along the Turkish model,” wrote columnist Ben Caspit in the Israeli daily Maariv.
“Now that we see the flames of democracy engulfing the streets of Cairo, we are overcome by deep anxiety,” wrote analyst Sever Plock in Yediot Aharonot. “What we fear is democracy as a transition period to a new dictatorship premised on radical Islam.”
Mokhefi however dismisses the "anxiety" of Israeli analysts. "The Muslim Brotherhood is undeniably a strong presence in Egypt. During the 2005 legislative elections, they received between 20 and 25% of the vote. But this does not mean they are able to take power," said Mokhefi.
Besides the rise of Islamists, Israelis fear a domino effect that would leave it even more isolated in the Arab world. A column in the Jerusalem Post talked about “the instability gripping Israel’s neighbour in the south,” referring to Egypt, “as well as Lebanon in the north.”
Another, in Maariv, noted that “Jordan is already trembling, while the Syrian tyrant [President Bashar al-Assad] does not sleep."
Israel can not count on its staunchest and strongest ally, the US, to urge Mubarak to stay in power. Barack Obama came under heavy criticism for his initial tepid response to the uprisings, with critics accusing the US president of abandoning the message of his celebrated “call for a new beginning” speech, which he delivered in Cairo on June 4, 2009.
“The Americans have overcome their initial trepidation,” said Mokhefi. “The situation in Egypt is finally a response to a call by Barack Obama, who wants to see democracy established in the region. Here, he does not even have to send in the troops – even if the democracy that emerges could be stumbling, staggering and clumsy, it’s in Washington’s interest."
Once again Israel is not taking any chances. As a report in the Jesusalem Post noted, senior Israeli officials have been reaching out to Republican politicians, voicing their opprobrium over Obama’s “hypocritical abandonment” of “a longtime (sic) ally”. It remains to be seen if Israeli officials have a receptive audience inside the Beltway.