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lsraeli-Egyptian ties face new challenge with election of Islamist president in Egypt

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JERUSALEM — In Israel, it has been dubbed “the cold peace” — the period of cooperative, if not warm, relations with Egypt that has lasted more than three decades despite the buffetings of regional wars, two Palestinian uprisings and political upheavals in both countries.

The election of an Islamist president in Egypt has raised new questions about the future of those relations and whether the 1978 Camp David accords and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty that followed — long seen as cornerstones of regional stability — will survive in their current form.

Israel and Egypt have for strategic reasons adhered to their peace pact, which has been buttressed with generous U.S. aid. And the Egyptian president-elect, Mohamed Morsi, has pledged to keep his country’s international commitments. Still, perceptions are rife in both countries that the other side has failed to honor key elements of the deal.

The Egyptian perspective was aired recently by Morsi in a television interview during the presidential campaign. Israel, he said, had not kept its commitment under the Camp David accords to reach a broader Middle East peace, particularly with the Palestinians.

Reflecting the views of his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as wider popular sentiment, Morsi accused the Israelis of acting in bad faith since they signed the peace agreements.

“Where is the mutual respect?” he said. “Where is what the agreement says about a just and comprehensive peace among all peoples of the region? Where’s the mutual non-belligerence? . . . Where are the good neighborly relations mentioned in the agreement?”

Referring to parts of the Camp David accords that outline a plan for Palestinian self-rule and negotiations to reach a final agreement on the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Morsi asked: “Who attacked whom since the agreement was signed? . . . Who is in the other’s territory now? Who attacked Gaza?”

Egyptian critics of the peace accords have long focused on the Palestinian dimension of the Camp David agreement, which prompted accusations in the Arab world when it was signed that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had made a separate peace, promising Israel normal relations before it had withdrawn from other Arab territories it captured in 1967.

“Egyptians signed the treaty looking for relations between Israel and all the Arab countries,” said Gamal Mazloum, a retired Egyptian army general. When that failed to materialize, opposition hardened in Egypt to expanding ties.

In Israel, the treaty raised hopes of developing trade and cultural links, tourism, and cooperation in business and agriculture. But ideological resistance among parts of the Egyptian elite to ties with Israel, along with the strains of the continuing conflict with the Palestinians, had a chilling effect on the relationship.

The sense in Israel was that Egypt was not interested in genuine normalization that would go beyond a state of non-belligerence. Egyptian tourists and businessmen did not come to Israel, the Egyptian press carried virulently anti-Israeli cartoons and articles, and trade ties were limited. The reservation emanated from the top; President Hosni Mubarak avoided travel to Israel, coming only once, for the funeral of the assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

“Since the early 1980s, Israeli leaders decided that peace with Egypt is too important to argue over every dot and comma, so in many cases they turned a blind eye to large and small Egyptian violations,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.

In the Israeli view, treaty provisions regarding normal economic and cultural relations, freedom of movement and abstention from hostile propaganda were not being met. But cooperation between the military and security establishments on both sides remained solid, reflecting common strategic interests and a united front against Islamist militants.

The Egyptian revolution last year posed new tests for the pact.

Rising lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula — where Bedouin tribesmen long resentful of the central government attacked police stations and pipelines carrying natural gas to Israel — led to the dispatch in August of Egyptian troops and armored vehicles to the area. The reinforcements, a deviation from troop levels allowed under the Israeli-Egyptian treaty, were sent with Israel’s agreement.

Elie Podeh, professor of Middle East studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the Sinai security crackdown showed that “the two sides can make changes, without reopening the treaty, through mutual understandings.”

There also have been isolated rocket attacks on Israel and two deadly raids by gunmen who crossed the border from Egypt, raising concerns in Israel about increasing activity in Sinai by militant groups. After an attack this month that killed an Israeli construction worker building a border fence, Israel briefly moved two tanks to the area, violating the terms of the treaty, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak urged the Egyptian authorities to end the cross-frontier violence, in line with the pact.

Israeli officials say that along with militants from Gaza, jihadist groups are also gaining a foothold in Sinai. That assertion was bolstered by a video released after the latest border attack announcing the founding of an al-Qaeda-inspired group and showing a “martyrdom” message from two gunmen in uniform, who identified themselves as an Egyptian and a Saudi.

There have been calls in Egypt for a revision of the treaty’s military annex that would remove limits on forces in Sinai, and in the recent presidential election campaign, some candidates pledged to review the treaty, in a nod to popular anti-Israeli sentiment.

But the Egyptian military leadership, which sees strategic and economic value in the treaty, is not inclined to take such steps, analysts said. The generals “are not interested in any kind of hostilities or fundamental changing of Egypt’s regional orientation,” said Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University.

He added that the treaty with Israel is not considered a priority by the military or ordinary Egyptians, who are preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues and the economic havoc caused by the revolution.

Still, remaining links with Israel could be weakened. A 2005 deal to supply Israel with natural gas, seen as a symbol of Mubarak’s ties with Israel, was canceled in April after criticism that it was tainted by corruption and that the gas was sold at below-market prices, costing Egypt millions of dollars in lost revenue.

Israeli analysts predict that relations with the new Egyptian president will be frosty, given the Muslim Brotherhood’s traditional hostility to Israel and championing of the Palestinian cause. But progress toward resolving the conflict with the Palestinians could help thaw that freeze, with repercussions throughout the region, Podeh said.

“Israel is perceived as an occupier,” Podeh said. “An agreement with the Palestinians would greatly help it in the Arab world.”

Karin Brulliard in Cairo contributed to this report.

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