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Israel's future also up in air after Mubarak's fall

Sandy Smith's picture

As Egypt enters the post-Mubarak era, two issues loom large: what will happen to Egypt after his fall, and what will happen to Israel after his fall.

The two issues are linked by the oldest peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state - the treaty between Egypt and Israel signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1979.

And despite fears within Israel and among its friends that a post-Mubarak Egypt will endanger the peace between the two countries, the surprising answer to the question "Will a post-Mubarak Egyptian government change relations with Israel?" may well be: No, not by much.

For starters, the Egyptian-Israeli peace has been a fairly cold one for most of the 30 years Hosni Mubarak has been in power. While the deposed Egyptian president has hosted Israeli heads of state, he had himself visited Israel only once and had made frequent critical comments about Israel and its actions, especially concerning Palestine.

It's not likely that a new Egyptian government will be any less critical of Israel. But will it be more critical, or worse?

That's the fear being expressed by many in both Israel and the United States, mainly on the Right. Aluf Benn, writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, says that Mubarak's ouster will leave Israel with no real friends in the Middle East now that Israel's relationship with Turkey also lies in shambles. Because of this, he writes, Israel will have to shop for new strategic alliances in the region. His suggestion for a possible partner is surprising: Syria, with which Israel has fought an off-and-on proxy war in Lebanon for most of the last two decades. But as the Syrian regime will be threatened by the wave of pro-democracy protest sweeping the Arab world, an alliance with Israel could shore up the country's bid to become the dominant player in the Middle East, he says.

One major reason for the worry on the Israeli and American Right is the likely role the Muslim Brotherhood will play in Egypt's political future. The Islamist organization, founded in 1928 and banned from Egyptian politics since the early 1950s, was a major supporter of the anti-Mubarak revolution, though it did not play a leading role in its organization or direction. Members of the group are on record as saying that a Brotherhood government in Egypt would scuttle the peace treaty as well. According to a RIA Novosti news report Feb. 3, the group's deputy leader, Rashad al-Bayoumi, told Japan's NHK television that one of the first moves a provisional Egyptian government should make is to dissolve the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.

This statement directly contradicts a statement the Brotherhood makes on its English-language website, Ikhwanweb. In an article complaining that American and Israeli conservatives worry needlessly about what a government with Brotherhood participation will mean for Israel, Khaled Hamza wrote, "The MB has consistently reiterated its firm stances regarding its position in Egypt which include its respect for international treaties and the global economy. The primary focus of the MB is the rights of Egyptians which have been sorely neglected during the three decades that Mubarak has been in power."

Ikhwanweb presents a more moderate face for the Muslim Brotherhood than the one delineated in most Western news media. Is it an accurate representation of the Brotherhood and its aims? Given what members of its leadership have said elsewhere, that is very much an open question. One factor that should allay fears, however, is that the Brotherhood has never enjoyed widespread support among Egyptians when they have had a chance to express their sentiments. In Egypt's last contested parliamentary elections, candidates connected to the organization failed to win a single seat in Parliament. Likewise, in the current revolution, the most prominent and visible leaders have come from the country's secular middle class, not the Islamist Brotherhood.

It's quite likely that the secularists, not the Brotherhood, will have the upper hand in shaping a post-Mubarak Egyptian regime, and that should give Israel less reason to worry. But the Jewish state will have to keep its options open.

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