Israel expects ‘a grave erosion’ of peace treaty with Egypt, Minister says
Israelis are nervously watching Egypt’s revolution reignite with protests in Tahrir Square raising fears a decades-old military dictatorship may soon be replaced by Islamist radicals who will pose a new security threat.
When Israel’s inner security Cabinet met for eight hours Tuesday to discuss annual intelligence assessments compiled by Shin Bet, the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its discussions apparently were dominated by concerns about Egypt, Syria and Iran.
Wednesday morning’s edition of Yediot Aharonot, Israel’s top-selling newspaper, carried the front-page headline: “Between Cairo and Tehran,” in reference to the Middle East’s rising Islamist tide.
The newspaper Maariv also reported that Israel’s army chief, Benny Gantz, “presented the security Cabinet with a scenario involving the cancellation of the peace treaty” between Egypt and Israel.
Also on Wednesday, Israel’s Minister for Civil Defence, Matan Vilnai, told Israel’s Army Radio that security experts expect a “grave erosion” of Israel’s 32-year-old peace treaty with Egypt, if the Muslim Brotherhood makes major gains in Egypt’s upcoming elections.
“The picture is quite clear,” he said. “We’ve been saying it for months. What we call the Muslim Brotherhood will ultimately be the majority in all the [Egyptian] institutions and once the regime stabilizes, as we expect it to do, we expect that there will be a grave erosion of this agreement. We have to prepare for such a situation.”
The peace treaty with Egypt has been a cornerstone of Israel’s security doctrine for three decades, guaranteeing relative quiet along its southern border and allowing Israel’s military to focus on threats elsewhere.
Israel and Egypt’s militaries learned to co-operate with each other and shared an interest in guarding the border and limiting the influence of Hamas in Gaza.
But relations have already deteriorated sharply since the ousting of former dictator Hosni Mubarak in February. Arab terrorists have launched cross-border attacks into Israel from the Sinai and repeatedly blown up an Egyptian pipeline that carries natural gas to Israel and Jordan. In September, a Cairo mob stormed and destroyed Israel’s Egyptian embassy.
The situation may only deteriorate further as Egypt experiences its first real taste of political competition in more than 40 years with the scheduled start of parliamentary elections on Monday.
“The political context in Egypt, when it comes to peace with Israel, might be changing,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Islamist parties — led by the Muslin Brotherhood but not exclusively — could be a dominant political bloc.”
Israel could become a target of convenience for competing politicians and a military that wants to cling to power while limiting confrontations with the Egyptian public.
“There is political capital to be made in saying, ‘We’re going to take a tougher position toward Israel,’” Mr. Makovsky said.
“In light of the January 25 Revolution, Israel no longer has the luxury or the security, of dealing with a handful of Egyptian leaders,” writes Mirette Mabrouk, of the Brookings Institute. “While the move toward democracy in Egypt is likely to be a slow and painful grind, Israel is still going to have to deal with a government more accountable to its people. And considering that any new government is going to struggle with the prodigious social and economic burdens left by the former regime, a populist foreign policy may be considered an easy crowd-pleaser.”
Israel has already braced for change by doubling up its military deployments along the Sinai and accelerating construction of a $400- million, five-metre tall, security fence along 240 kilometres of the Egyptian border.
Any cooling of relations with Cairo could have major repercussions for Israel, since Egypt is more than just an Arab neighbour, but plays a dominant role in the rest of the Arab world.
“It looks like it is going to be a long Arab Winter,” said Moshe Arens, a former Israeli defence and foreign minister.
“The Islamists are going to inherit the mantle of the dictators. A wave of Islamic rule, with all it entails, is sweeping across the Arab world. It will replace secular dictatorships with Islamic ones. We should have expected nothing else.”