By Matti Friedman
JERUSALEM: Israel’s prime minister said Sunday that his government is “anxiously monitoring” the political unrest in Egypt, his first comment on the crisis threatening a regime that has been one of Israel’s key allies for more than 30 years.
Israeli officials have remained largely silent about the situation in Egypt, but have made clear that preserving the historic 1979 peace agreement is a paramount interest. The peace, cool but stable, turned Israel’s most potent regional enemy into a crucial partner, provided security on one of its borders and allowed it to significantly reduce the size of its army and defense budget.
“We are anxiously monitoring what is happening in Egypt and in our region,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before his Cabinet’s weekly meeting.
“Israel and Egypt have been at peace for more than three decades and our objective is to ensure that these ties be preserved. At this time, we must display responsibility, restraint and utmost prudence.”
It was the first high-level comment from Israel on the Egypt protests, which began last week with disorganized crowds demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and have grown into the most significant challenge to Egypt’s autocratic regime in recent memory.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak discussed the situation in Egypt with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday, according to a statement from Barak’s office. No details of the discussion were released.
Over the weekend, Israel evacuated the families of its diplomats from Cairo and security officials began holding urgent consultations.
Israeli officials, ordered to speak on condition of anonymity, expressed grave concerns about Mubarak’s tenuous grip on power. Some said they feared the violence could spread to neighboring Jordan, the only other Arab country with a peace deal with Israel, or to the Palestinian territories.
Israel’s primary concern is that the uprising could be commandeered by Egypt’s strongest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its allies, who would presumably move Egypt away from its alignment with the West and possibly cancel the peace agreement with Israel.
“Israel has an interest in Egypt being democratic, but through a process that promises sustainability,” said Dan Shueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. “If you have a process that starts with a desire for democracy but then sees radicals take over, then the result at the end of the process is worse than what you had at the beginning.”
The benefits to Israel of peace with Egypt have been significant.
In the three decades before the peace agreement, Israel and Egypt fought four major wars. Israel now spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, Shueftan said — compared with 23 percent in the 1970s, when a state of war with Egypt still existed.
Where Israel once deployed thousands of soldiers along the Egyptian frontier, today there are several hundred. This reduction allowed the Israeli economy to begin flowering in the years after the peace deal, he said.
Mubarak has also served as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.
If Egypt resumes its conflict with Israel, Israelis fear, it will put a powerful Western-armed military on the side of Israel’s enemies while also weakening pro-Western states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, offered an assessment Sunday in the daily Yediot Ahronot.
“The assumption at present is that Mubarak’s regime is living on borrowed time, and that a transition government will be formed for the next number of months until new general elections are held,” he wrote.
“If those elections are held in a way that the Americans want, the most likely result will be that the Muslim Brotherhood will win a majority and will be the dominant force in the next government. That is why it is only a question of a brief period of time before Israel’s peace with Egypt pays the price,” wrote Shaked.
Some in Israel have critically compared President Barack Obama’s response to the crisis to that of President Jimmy Carter to the Iranian revolution in 1979. Obama has called on Mubarak to show restraint and pass unspecified reforms in Egypt.
“Jimmy Carter will go down in American history as ‘the president who lost Iran,’ which during his term went from being a major strategic ally of the United States to being the revolutionary Islamic republic,” wrote the analyst Aluf Benn in the daily Haaretz.
“Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who ‘lost’ Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America’s alliances in the Middle East crumbled.”
In the short term, Israel will face increased smuggling activities in the Sinai peninsula, where the authority of the Cairo government — never strong — has been further weakened by the unrest, said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli general.
Weapons, fuel and other goods enter the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which is subject to a partial Israeli and Egyptian blockade, through tunnels from the Sinai desert.
“They will now try to get in everything they couldn’t get in before,” Amidror said.
Israel captured Sinai in 1967 and then ceded it to Egypt in the 1979 peace deal. The area was demilitarized as part of the agreement.
For now, the unrest seems to have had the opposite effect. Gaza smugglers said the supply routes have been disrupted and that they have not received any merchandise from Egypt since Friday, apparently because of difficulties in transporting the goods across Egypt to the Gaza border. –Additional reporting by Ibrahim Barzak in Rafah, Gaza Strip, and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem.