Israel Monitors Egyptian Political Crisis Carefully

A new Egyptian leader would reconfigure the politics in the Middle East. A departure by President Mubarak could have implications for many nations, including Israel which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Few countries are following events in Egypt more closely than Israel. Israel's peace treaty with Egypt has been the cornerstone of its regional strategy since that treaty was signed more than three decades ago. Now, with the furniture being rearranged around the Middle East, Israel's prime minister has made an appeal to the international community.

We're joined from Jerusalem by NPR correspondent Philip Reeves.

Good morning.

PHILIP REEVES: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What exactly is Israel asking for?

REEVES: Well, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has issued a statement asking the international community to insist that any new government in Egypt abides by that peace treaty. Egypt is the largest and most powerful of Israel's Arab neighbors. The two countries share a long border. That peace treaty has shaped Israel's geopolitical and military strategy for more than 30 years, and Israel's deeply worried about the possibility that it may now fall apart.

Theres an intriguing report in Israel's Haaretz newspaper, on the website, saying that Israel's now pressing the international community - and obviously first and foremost that means the U.S. - to require that any new Egyptian government that may emerge should meet certain specific conditions in return for recognition by the West. And that includes, of course, the recognition of Israel and the commitment against the use of violence.

MONTAGNE: Faced with this uprising in Egypt, how has Israel's position moved from the first days of this to, say, today?

REEVES: Well, I think there's been a change in nuance. In the first days of the uprising, Israel was quietly urging the West not to destabilize President Hosni Mubarak. But this uprising has presented Israel with a big dilemma. It's always placed a lot of emphasis on its credentials as a democracy. It clearly doesn't want to be seen as an opponent of a movement in Egypt that's currently widely perceived as young and democratic and opposed to dictatorship.

In his latest statement, Netanyahu speaks positively of the protestors, saying Israel supports the advance of liberal and democratic values in the Middle East, but he also addresses the issue that's haunting Israel's strategy planners at the moment, which is that radicals adamantly hostile to Israel will eventually come to power in Cairo, as happened, Netanyahu says, in Iran in 1979.

MONTAGNE: And Phil, just for a moment, step back and remind us why all this matters so much.

REEVES: Well, you know, the peace agreement with Egypt is one of Israel's most important strategic assets.

Now, what happens in Egypt's therefore absolutely of crucial importance. Peace along its southern border has saved Israel a great deal in economic and military resources over the years. It's enabled it to focus on the Palestinians in the West Bank and on neighboring Lebanon and Syria.

Israelis are now asking themselves some very critical questions: Might they now have to prepare for confrontation on their southern flank? Will they have to expand their armed forces? Will Israel have to beef up its defense spending still further? And what would the impact of that be on the economy?

MONTAGNE: And how worried are the Israelis about the Gaza Strip, which is sandwiched between Israel and Egypt?

REEVES: Israel is very worried indeed about this. Egypt, under Mubarak, has quietly cooperated with Israel in the highly controversial three-year blockade of Gaza. Israelis are now asking what happens if a new Egyptian government proves reluctant to isolate Hamas in Gaza. Now, in practical terms, that obviously means, among other things, how would this affect the ability of the Palestinians to acquire arms.

Israel's also worrying about the domino effect, whether the currents that inspired the Egyptian uprising will sweep into Jordan. There's already been street protests there, as you know, prompting King Abdullah to sack his government in an attempt to damp down public anger. There's a general recognition in Israel that the situation in Jordan is not quite the same as Egypt, but there's an awareness too that no one foresaw the uprising in Egypt, and at the moment the Middle East is proving very, very difficult to predict.

MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from Jerusalem, NPR correspondent Philip Reeves. Thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome.

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