News / Middle East

Egypt Unrest Concerns Israel

Former US national security advisor and retired Marine Corps General James Jones (file photo)
Former US national security advisor and retired Marine Corps General James Jones (file photo)
Meredith Buel

Israel is concerned that Egypt's political upheaval could spread to other Arab nations and bring radical Islamists to power.

Israeli officials worry that any sudden change in the Egyptian government could bring chaos and threaten stability in an already volatile region.

With demonstrations growing against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and his decision not to run for re-election in September after three decades in power, security experts continue to wonder what impact the change could have on the Middle East.

Addressing a policy conference in the Israeli city of Herzliya, former U.S. national security advisor and retired Marine Corps General James Jones asked the questions on the minds of many people here.

"The unrest in Egypt, following the events in Tunisia, has gripped the attention of policy-makers the world over and for good reason," said Jones. "Could the peace that has existed for so long between Israel and Egypt be in jeopardy?  Will the forces of radicalism be buttressed or diminished by these events?"

Treaty with Egypt cornerstone of Israeli strategy

For more than 30 years, Israel has counted on its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt as the cornerstone of its regional security strategy.

The revolt that has brought large numbers of protesters into the streets of Cairo has created uncertainty for Israeli government officials, who constantly point out that they live in what they term "a very dangerous neighborhood."

"We are really afraid," said Zvi Mazel. "Really afraid and it is legitimate for us to say that we are afraid."

Zvi Mazel is a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.  He says Israel is particularly anxious about the Muslim Brotherhood, a well-established Islamist movement that is officially banned in Egypt.  While the group has not played a leading part during the current protests, Mazel says Israel is extremely concerned about its potential role in any future government.

"We can do one only thing, warn the international community that they should put pressure on Egypt to keep the peace with Israel, whatever government emerges," he said. "If it is the Muslim Brotherhood, there will be, it may lead, it may lead to war.  But is this the wish of the people of Egypt, to go back to war?"

Retired Israeli General Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and currently a member of parliament, says the Arab uprising is a stunning development and potentially creates a severe threat to Israel.

"We must admit that Israel, the West and the entire region were taken by surprise by the strength and power of this earthquake that began in Tunisia, Egypt and threatens to expand to other countries in the region," said Mofaz. "This is an existential threat."

For decades, Israel has benefited from the cooperation of some autocratic leaders in the Middle East, however the current uproar has shown that some such governments are potentially unstable.

Israeli leaders say while they support the spread of freedom and democracy, they are worried if changes come too quickly.

Shlomo Avineri is a former director of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who is now a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

"I think, like all Israelis, we would like to see democracy in Egypt," said Avineri. "If Egypt will become a democratic country, democracies, we know, do not go to war against democracies.  And this will be the best thing that could happen to Israel if there is going to be a true, consolidated, democracy in Egypt.  However, I am afraid this is probably not going to happen."

Future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

The current uncertainty is threatening efforts to revive the moribund peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli President Shimon Peres says now is the time to increase efforts to solve that conflict.

"The events of the recent period raise the need to free our agenda of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as soon as possible because the conflict is exploited by all sides, both by the Arab side and by us," said President Peres. "Israel must maintain its strength in the face of all enemies that rise up against it, but at the same time it must stretch out its hand in peace to all those who are willing to conciliate with it."

Israel is hoping for a smooth transition managed by Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Suleiman has had a lengthy relationship with the Israelis and a 2008 diplomatic cable made public by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks  shows he has been Israel’s favored successor to Mr. Mubarak for years.

Former ambassador to Cairo, Zvi Mazel, says Israel is very grateful Mr. Mubarak’s government has not disintegrated.  

"The situation now in Egypt is a kind of a stalemate or standoff, it is an intermediary phase, absolutely because it is not finished and I think it is being characterized by the fact that the regime is still on," said Mazel. "The regime did not collapse.  It is a fact."

The former ambassador says Israel hopes for an orderly transition in Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

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