Israel's links with Egypt steadily worsen

May 1, 2012 at 3:09 PM
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TEL AVIV, Israel, May 1 (UPI) -- Israel's relations with Egypt are steadily deteriorating following the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak and the countries' historic 1979 peace treaty is growing increasingly tenuous.

Amr Moussa, Egypt's former foreign minister and the leading candidate in the May 23-24 presidential election, declared Sunday during a campaign rally that the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords should be considered "dead and buried."

In Israel, former Defense Minister Binyamin "Fouad" Ben-Eliezer, a retired army general who fought the Egyptians in three wars, was quoted by the liberal daily Haaretz Monday as saying, "We must be prepared to for the possibility of a confrontation with Egypt."

Ben-Eliezer, a hard-liner who was one of the main architects of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and a strong proponent of the 2002 Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank during the second Palestinian intifada, has no wish to see Egypt renounce the 1979 treaty.

It's become the linchpin of Israel's strategic policy and over the last three decades was the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region as well.

Mubarak was a staunch supporter of the pact, if only because it gave him leverage with Washington, which provided him with weapons and $2 billion a year in military and economic aid and allowed him to build a deeply corrupt dictatorship.

Egypt has been run by an interim government made up of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, largely Mubarak associates, since Mubarak's downfall in February 2011.

But in that time, Islamists, outlawed and tortured during Mubarak's rule, have won a majority in Parliament and are running for the presidency. They would like to scrap the treaty, as would most of Egypt's 85 million people.

They have long viewed it as a humiliating pact that forbids Egypt to keep more than a few hundred troops in the Sinai Peninsula as a buffer against Egyptian attack and allows Israel to keep the Palestinians in bondage.

But the Muslim Brotherhood, which took 46 percent of the parliamentary vote, and its allies are treading warily because losing U.S. aid would probably cripple what is essentially a shaky economy.

The SCAF will have to hand over to an Islamist-dominated civilian government and is unlikely to delay this once the staggered presidential election is wrapped up in June.

That could be crunch time for the peace treaty.

Relations took a sharp downturn April 22, when Cairo cut off natural gas supplies to Israel, claiming four months of unpaid bills.

Under a June 2005 agreement, in which Ben-Eliezer played a key role as infrastructure minister, Egypt provided Israel with 142 billion cubic feet of gas a year via a pipeline across Sinai. That agreement had become a symbol of the growing tension between the peace partners since Mubarak's ouster.

The Egyptians said the agreement was suspended for commercial reasons but Israeli sources say the overriding motivation was political. There have been 14 incidents of sabotage on the pipeline that constantly disrupted supplies.

"This is a government-backed contract sealed by a memorandum of understanding between Egypt and Israel that specifically refers to the peace treaty," shareholders in the East Mediterranean Gas Co., the Israeli partner, declared April 15.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has sought to downplay the termination of the gas agreement but his government has become increasingly alarmed at Cairo's loss of security control in the Sinai since Mubarak's fall.

Israel says al-Qaida has established a growing foothold in the long-neglected region and has stepped up security along the 150-mile border since August, when terrorists killed eight Israelis.

If there's a flash point in this worsening crisis, it's the Sinai.

If Cairo demands the 1979 pact be scrapped, the delicate diplomatic infrastructure that has kept the peace between Israel and the Arab's world most populous state for 30 years could well collapse.

"Egypt's a pivotal state for Israel," Ben-Eliezer said. "People have no idea of its significance … Its loss will be a very big blow to us. From now on it will be a completely different story.

"The (Egyptian) army's weakening, losing its autonomy to the benefit of the government. That's bad for us. It's vital we maintain the relationship with Egypt at any price."

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