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February 01, 2011

Israel Concerned Egypt Upheaval Could Radicalize Arab Neighbors

by Meredith Buel

The Israeli government is watching the violent unrest in Egypt - and protests in other Arab countries - with the primary concern that a radically aggressive Islamist regime could take over in Cairo and the political upheaval could spread.

The protests and street clashes in Cairo are redrawing the strategic and political landscape in the Middle East, and Israel is finding itself surrounded by Arab countries and governments facing an uncertain future.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision not to run for re-election after three decades in power could have an impact on relations defined by the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said, "We always have had, and still have, a great respect for President Mubarak, and we do not say everything that he did is right, but he did one thing, which all of us are thankful for him. He kept the peace in the Middle East."

In Israel, which has counted on its more than 30-year-old peace treaty with Egypt for regional stability, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now confronts a new unknown in the country’s very dangerous neighborhood.

Jordan’s King Abdullah has fired his Cabinet, bowing to public pressure for reform after demonstrations inspired by those in Egypt.  

In the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered his ministers and other officials not to talk publicly about the situation in Egypt.

Mark Heller, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, describes Israel’s number one concern. "That a radically aggressive, Islamist regime might take over in Egypt and, among other things, direct its hostility and aggressiveness against Israel."

Tzvica Fogel is a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces, and is currently a military analyst. He said the prospect of President Mubarak exiting from Egypt’s political leadership is causing the Israeli military to rethink its most significant regional strategic relationship.

Fogel said the military is not necessarily planning on an eventual breaking of the peace agreement with Egypt, but is focusing on the influence of Islamist groups on Israel's borders.

As Fogel put it, "this concentration of terrorist organizations is something that at the moment ought to make us all lose sleep."

Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a former Israeli defense minister, is critical of the United States for advocating a rapid transition in the Egyptian government.

Ben Eliezer said he thinks the Americans do not understand, as he puts it, the tragedy in which they have participated, because, he says, it is endangering the peace process in the Middle East.

Developments in the past five years, including the takeover by the militant Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s influence in the region have many Israelis feeling the area is turning even more against them.

Analysts say if Muslim hard-liners take power in Egypt, Israel will feel surrounded in a way it has not been for decades.

Heller said, "In the most extreme case, we could have a situation in which there is a radical force dominating - a radical Sunni force dominating Egypt, a radical Shi’ite force dominating Iran - and an ongoing competition between the two of them to show who is more active and effective in confronting Israel and the United States."

Heller said Israel should make a conscious effort to maintain a low profile during the Arab unrest because almost anything the country says or does probably will be criticized and counterproductive.

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