Israel wary of transition in Egypt, concerned about regional stability

Several thousand supporters of President Hosni Mubarak, including some riding horses and camels and wielding whips, clashed with anti-government protesters Wednesday as Egypt's upheaval took a dangerous new turn. (Feb 2)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 9:12 PM

JERUSALEM - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's quickening collapse and increasing political turmoil in Jordan have prompted concerns in Israel that its historic peace treaties with those countries may not withstand the convulsion sweeping the region.

A change of power in Egypt and instability in Jordan could have profound consequences for Israel, which depends on the peace accords - its only two with Arab countries - as a cornerstone of its security.

The treaties struck by Israel with Egypt in 1979 and with Jordan in 1994 remain unpopular among the residents of the two Arab nations, and Israel has relied on the strength of Mubarak's regime and the Jordanian monarchy to keep them intact.

Not all of the recent developments have been bad from the Israelis' perspective: Newly appointed Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman has become a trusted interlocutor on regional security issues, and the United States will push to ensure that the peace accords remain in place.

But the fast pace of events may change how Israel perceives its position, and make it less willing to offer territorial concessions as part of any peace deal with the Palestinians. The country is still digesting the rise in Lebanon of a new government chosen by the Shiite Hezbollah, one of its chief antagonists, and may now sense instability on all sides.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convened top intelligence analysts and senior cabinet members in Tel Aviv for a day of urgent consultations Tuesday to weigh the changes underway in Egypt and assess the strength of Jordan's King Abdullah II, an Israeli official said. Abdullah sacked his cabinet Tuesday amid clamors for more economic and political reform.

After the meetings, Netanyahu said the international community "must demand that any Egyptian government preserve the peace accord with Israel."

It's an understandable anxiety. After fighting Egypt in successive wars from 1948 to 1973, the peace treaty with the Arab world's most populous country gave Israel a mostly quiet southern border. For three decades that detente has been defended by Mubarak, in the face of popular disapproval, as a vital "strategic choice" for Egypt.

Egypt's transition to new and still uncertain leadership left Netanyahu drawing parallels with the Iranian revolution in 1979, when an ostensibly democratic uprising against the shah was consolidated into a hardline Muslim theocracy. Until this week, Israeli officials said they were confident Mubarak could withstand any challenge.

"If extreme elements are allowed to exploit democratic processes to attain power and promote anti-democratic goals, as happened in Iran and elsewhere, the result will be harm to peace, and harm to democracy," Netanyahu warned in a statement.

Mubarak, at 82, likely had only a few years left in office, regardless of the mood of the Egyptian people. But Israeli officials said what unnerved them is how fast the landscape changed - and how quickly, in their view, the United States and other allied powers appeared to pull away from Mubarak after relying on him for so long.

"When some people in the West see what's happening in Egypt they see Europe 1989," said an Israeli official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. He was referring to the revolutions in Eastern Europe that preceded the fall of the Soviet Union.

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