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Egyptian elections stir disquiet in Israel

The Arab Spring could open the door for Islamists – as seen in Egypt elections – and threaten Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned.

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Netanyahu was quoted yesterday as telling Israeli lawmakers that while Israel wants to bolster its peace treaty with Egypt, the region has been destabilized by an Islamist wave. Last week he said that Arab countries "are not moving forward toward progress, they are moving backwards."

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A victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is expected to give a boost to Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as it gears up for elections set for May 2012 against the secular Fatah party led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Affiliates of the Brotherhood have also taken the lead in criticizing King Abdullah II of Jordan, which is the only other Arab country apart from Egypt to have made peace with Israel.

Security concerns

There’s also concern that Egypt’s focus on domestic challenges has diverted attention away from the Sinai Peninsula, a vast desert region which Israel views as a growing base for militants seeking to attack Israel. Israel has accelerated construction on a new border fence and reinforced areas where the frontier is still porous.

"The political and security changes in Egypt … turned what was, until very recently, Israel’s quietest border for 30 years into a complex security challenge," wrote Yoram Schweitzer and Ilona Dryndin, in an article published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.  

Brotherhood seen as increasingly pragmatic

To be sure, despite all the anxiousness, few in Israel expect the peace to collapse in the coming years or a war to breakout between the two neighbors. Egypt’s political and economic woes are too consuming for Cairo to abandon its peace treaty and spur conflict with Israel. While the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed as virulent in its anti-Israel ideology, it is also seen favoring a gradual shift in power.

"We know that there are those who even though they don't love Israel, realize that the price will be very high if they cancel the peace agreement," said Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom in an interview with Israel Radio.

A better peace?

Indeed, some analysts cautioned that it is still too early for Israel to draw any conclusions about its future relations with Egypt’s new leaders. And even if the new Egyptian government becomes more hostile, observers believe that the opening up of Egyptian society might give Israel more freedom to thaw the "cold peace" that kept Egyptians and Israelis from normalizing ties at the grass-roots level.

"Throughout the history of the peace, the ability of Israel to go beyond the regime was extremely limited because everything was always tightly controlled by the regime," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. "Even though there might be more hatred of Israel by extremists, there might be more open framework and a willingness to see Israeli realities."

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