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.

Ahmed Ali/AP
An Egyptian man looks at a board with names of different political parties and their candidates on the second day of parliamentary elections in Cairo, Tuesday.
Baz Ratner/AP
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in his office in Jerusalem on Sunday.

With Islamists poised to make a strong showing in Egypt's elections, months of uncertainty in Israel about the future of its 32-year partnership with Egypt are coming to a head.

Last week's clashes in Tahrir Square underscored deep public anger with Egypt's military rulers, who have backed the cold peace over the objection of Egyptians for more than three decades. Now, with growing public pressure in Egypt for a quick transition to civilian rule, and the possibility that Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate the new parliament, Israel is facing the prospect of a much less reliable neighbor.

In addition, the anticipated victory by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties could boost political Islam in neighboring Jordan and the Palestinian territories.

"Egypt will not be the same country for Israel, just as the whole region is not the same as we have experienced since the Arab League was established,’’ says Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. "The assumption is that it is going to be a more radical Islamist Middle East."

Arab 'spring'?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who has sought to frame the Arab Spring as more of a threat than a opportunity – sees vindication in the recent turmoil.

The 'Arab Spring' is not a harbinger of a more liberal and democratic Middle East, he has argued. Rather, this year's upheaval – still under way in Syria, Yemen, and even Egypt – signals greater instability that could stir up extremism against Israel and its allies. Mr. Netanyahu has firmly maintained, in the face of criticism from both Washington and opponents at home, that that means that Israel must take a conservative approach to peacemaking with its Arab neighbors.

As hundreds of thousands of protestors in Cairo’s Tahrir Square clashed with Egyptian security forces last week, Netanyahu ridiculed political opponents who had pressured him to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to improve Israel’s regional image.

" 'It is ... the right time,' you said. 'Don't miss the opportunity,' " he said. "But I do not base Israel's policy on illusion. The earth is shaking.'

Netanyahu: Region destabilized by Islamist wave

Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Israel has managed to maintain good ties with Egypt’s interim military rulers despite several flare-ups. But the renewed demonstrations in Tahrir Square last week, in which public anger with military rule boiled over into clashes that killed at least 40, showed that long-term military control is far from assured. And distaste for Israel is one of the few consensus positions in Egyptian politics, from the far left to the religious right.

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."

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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