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Israel views Egypt's turmoil with alarm

Israel views Egypt's turmoil with alarm
Egyptians rally in Cairo's main square during a large anti-government protest in a bid to topple the government President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, Egypt on January 31, 2011. UPI | License Photo

JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Israel is watching the turmoil in neighboring Egypt with mounting alarm as President Hosni Mubarak's grip on power appears to be weakening in the first Arab nation to make peace with the Jewish state.

The Israelis fear that if Mubarak is overthrown it will open the door to large-scale infiltration by Islamic militants into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and even the collapse of the historic U.S.-brokered peace treaty Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, signed March 26, 1979.

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And if the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, which signed a peace agreement Oct. 26, 1994, also falls in the wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world from the western Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, Israel could find itself once more surrounded by hostile states.

Neither peace has been particularly warm and there are many in both Egypt and Jordan who see those treaties as a betrayal of the Arab cause and would like to see them torn up.

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Israel's longtime alliance with Turkey, a Muslim state, was shattered May 31 when the Israeli navy challenged a Turkish-organized convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip and killed nine Turkish peace activists.

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If the regimes in Cairo and Amman are toppled, Israel will once again find itself alone and friendless in a region where the power of its strategic ally the United States is waning and that of its main enemy of the moment, Iran, is growing.

Syria, the other main frontline state on Israel's northern border, remains in a state of war with Israel and is now Iran's key ally in the region and supports militant groups fighting the Jewish state, like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

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The 1993-94 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians still hasn't produced a peace agreement and the prospect of one, already dim and distant, would be crushed, probably forever, if Egypt and Jordan renounced their treaties.

"The fading power of … Mubarak's government leaves Israel in a state of strategic distress," veteran commentator Aluf Benn wrote in Israel's liberal daily Haaretz.

"From now on, it will be hard for Israel to trust an Egyptian government torn apart by internal strife. Israel's increasing isolation in the region, coupled with a weakening United States, will force the government to court new potential allies."

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Despite Mubarak's personal animosity toward Israel after four wars and the open hostility of many Egyptians, "the 'cold peace' with Egypt was the most important strategic alliance Israel had in the Middle East," Benn observed.

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Israel highly valued the link with Egypt, the most populous Arab nation and traditional leader of the Arab world, because despite its shortcomings it provided a bridge between Jews and Arabs that held out the hope of wider relations in the region.

"The security provided by the alliance gave Israel the chance to concentrate its forces on the northern front (against Syria and Lebanon) and around the settlements," Benn noted.

"Starting in 1985, peace with Egypt allowed Israel to cut its defense budget, which greatly benefited the economy."

Cairo also helped nurse the tortuous peace process with the Palestinians, opposed Iran's expansionist aims and even provided the Jewish state with 40 percent of its natural gas imports.

But Benn suggested that if Israel is forced to seek out new allies, the perennial rivalry between the Arab states, arguably the main reason they have never been able to defeat Israel, might provide some openings.

"The natural candidates include Syria, which is striving to exploit Egypt's weakness to claim a place among the key nations in the region," Benn wrote.

"The images from Cairo and Tunisia surely send chills down the backs of Syrian President Bashar Assad and his cronies, despite the achievement they made with the new Hezbollah-backed Lebanese government."

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Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt observed that "there can be no doubt" that if Mubarak goes whoever takes over "will seek to deal the peace with Israel a very public blow."

Writing in the Yediot Ahronot daily, he said, "The only people in Egypt who are committed to peace are the people in Mubarak's inner circle."

Meanwhile, as Israel braces for the nightmare scenario its leaders fear, all eyes are on what the Islamic Brotherhood, the best organized of Egypt's anti-Mubarak forces, will do in the days ahead.

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