Tuesday, February 1, 2011; A09
JERUSALEM - Israel's prime minister said Monday that his country's primary concern in Egypt is that the current crisis could create a void in which Islamic militants step in and endanger decades of peaceful relations between the two countries.
Speaking at a joint news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Binyamin Netanyahu gave his most detailed assessment yet of the unrest that threatens to topple Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's strongest ally in the Arab world.
"In a state of chaos, an organized Islamic group can take over a country. It has happened. It happened in Iran," Netanyahu said. "A takeover of oppressive regimes of extreme Islam violates human rights, grinds them to dust . . . and in parallel also pose[s] a terrible danger to peace and stability."
It was Netanyahu's most direct comment about the crisis in Egypt, which has triggered concerns about stability there and elsewhere in the region. Before, Netanyahu said only that he was "anxiously following" the situation, while stressing Israel's commitment to peace with Cairo.
Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace accord with Israel in 1979 and has strictly honored it. Mubarak has close ties to Israeli leaders and has acted as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians.
Merkel also expressed concern about the deteriorating situation in Egypt. "Dialogue is necessary, freedom of thought is necessary, peaceful treatment of demonstrators is necessary," she said.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials said Monday that they have agreed to let Egypt move several hundred troops into the Sinai Peninsula for the first time since the countries reached peace three decades ago.
The officials say Israel allowed the Egyptian army to move two battalions - about 800 soldiers - into Sinai on Sunday. The officials said the troops were based in the Sharm el-Sheikh area on Sinai's southern tip, far from Israel.
Under the 1979 peace treaty, Israel returned the captured Sinai to Egypt. In return, Egypt agreed to leave the area - which borders southern Israel - demilitarized. The arid peninsula lies between Egypt's mainland and Israel, and Israel was worried about an Egyptian invasion then.
Now, as the unrest in Egypt has spread, Israeli officials have grown increasingly concerned about the stability of their southern neighbor. They are especially worried that Palestinian militants could take advantage of the unrest to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.