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Israel wary of transition in Egypt, concerned about regional stability

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; A10

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.

"We see it as Tehran 1979."

Israel has regarded Jordan's monarchy as even more stable than Egypt. But given how quickly protest movements have spread throughout the region since the fall of Tunisia's president last month, those assessments are also being reexamined.

Abdullah's dismissal of his cabinet had been anticipated - the king often shuffles top officials in a crisis - but the timing of it, just days after Mubarak tried the same tactic to appease demonstrators, made Abdullah appear weak, analysts said.

"The king does not like to be seen as acting under pressure. And that's exactly what he did. That means that maybe he feels things are moving very quickly and that he has to act right now," said Asaf David, a Jordan expert at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

If Netanyahu was already squeamish about making concessions as part of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, recent events are sure to reinforce his reluctance.

One core dispute, for example, is the future of the Israeli-controlled Jordan Valley, a large swath of West Bank territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and which Palestinians want as part of their future state. The territory, some Israelis argue, is a crucial buffer zone between Israel and Jordan, beyond which lie Iraq and Iran.

"The insistence of the idea of an Israeli presence in the Jordan valley was considered by many Israelis as unnecessary or by some as just an excuse" not to make peace with the Palestinians, said Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. "Now with this new reality, more Israelis will support these precautionary measures."

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