Israelis appear relieved at Mubarak's decision not to quit; reaction muted elsewhere in region

Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2011; 5:49 AM

JERUSALEM - Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's late-night announcement that he would not quit was met Friday with little or no official reaction throughout the region as leaders cautiously awaited another day of protests in Cairo and continued to try to gauge what impact the political stalemate in Egypt would have on their own rule.

In Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had no immediate comment. But Israeli officials, like Arab leaders - many of whom would still prefer continuity over democratic reform -- were most likely relieved at Mubarak's decision to transfer some authority to his vice president but remain in power through September, analysts said.

"Israel breathed a sigh of relief," Israeli commentator Alex Fishman wrote in Friday's daily Yedioth Ahronoth after Mubarak's speech. Fishman noted that now it was unlikely there would be any shifts in Egypt's foreign policy until at least September. "We've received an extension. Which will make it possible for the State of Israel to study the developments closely and to try to prepare for them," Fishman wrote.

Before the speech late Thursday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in the United States conferring with American officials about Israel's concerns in the event of Mubarak's ouster. Since the start of demonstrations Jan. 25, Netanyahu has been warning about the prospect of Egypt's pro-democracy movement morphing into something akin to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Israel's Channel One Television broke away Thursday night from its broadcast of the Israeli national basketball cup final to carry Mubarak's speech live with a Hebrew ticker that read "End of the Mubarak Era."

Israeli Labor Party Knesset member and former minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who negotiated some bilateral agreements with Egypt, said the Egyptian leader "sounded like he wants to leave in a dignified way."

But Ben-Eliezer noted that Mubarak's speech left many question marks for Israel, including what would happen during a transfer of power, who the next leader would be and the fate of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

Whatever happens in the next days and weeks, Israelis remain concerned about the longer term and the possibility that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood opposition group could influence any post-Mubarak leader to reevaluate the peace with Israel.

"We are for the last two and a half weeks concerned very much about what is happening in Egypt," said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. "I don't see that we are going to relax and get rid of our worries in the foreseeable future."

Palestinian political commentator Hani al-Masri said the implications of what was happening in Egypt would be profound for the region, including for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"If the Palestinian Authority will not carry out fast and rapid reforms as far as corruption is concerned and torturing prisoners, then we will see the same thing happen in the Palestinian areas," Masri said.

Saudi Arabia, before Mubarak's speech, expressed frustration with outside meddling in Egypt's affairs and appeared frustrated with the United States for what it perceived as its abandonment of the Egyptian president.

"We express our strong disapproval and utmost condemnation of interference by some countries that raises the stakes on the Egyptian people in a blatant interference in its internal affairs," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said.

The British newspaper The Times said Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz told President Obama in a telephone call this week not to humiliate Mubarak and pledged that Saudi Arabia would provide Egypt with aid if the United States decides to withdraw its more than $1 billion in annual assistance.

But even with its keen attention to the political crisis in Egypt, Saudi Arabia was distracted by rumors about the Saudi king's failing health, which jolted global oil markets and could prove another cause for regional instability. To calm fears, the Saudi foreign minister told a press conference Thursday that the king, who is estimated to be around 87 years old, was in "excellent shape."

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