U.S., Israel Focus Talks On Egypt The widespread protests — and their threat to the stability of Egypt — have caused enormous concern in Israel. But so, too, has the White House's handling of the crisis.
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U.S., Israel Focus Talks On Egypt

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U.S., Israel Focus Talks On Egypt

U.S., Israel Focus Talks On Egypt

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We're still following developments in Egypt, where protesters have been told to expect an announcement. We just heard that from NPR's Soraya Sarharddi Nelson a few minutes ago in Cairo. We've also seen state TV images of Egyptian generals and we have a statement here in Washington from CIA Director Leon Panetta. He says, quote, "There's a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening," referring to Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt.

We'll bring you more as we learn it, developments as yet unclear.

Across the border, in Israel, leaders are nervous. Successive Israeli governments have had generally good relations with Mubarak, and Israel is concerned about who will replace him. Yesterday, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, was at the Pentagon for talks with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: One of the central pillars of Israel's national security doctrine is its peace treaty with Egypt. Signed in 1979, the agreement has come to represent a slice of stability for Israel in an otherwise turbulent region.

To watch that stability erode under the weight of massive protests is difficult for Israel, says Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. But Danin says Israel knows silence is a wise choice right now.

Mr. ROBERT DANIN (Middle East Specialist, Council on Foreign Relations): There have been a few comments out of Israel, but for the most part they're keeping quiet, and that is wise. Right now the demonstrations in Egypt are focused entirely on domestic issues; there's no focus on the West, there's no focus on the United States, and most notably, there's no focus on Israel. Israel should not interject itself into that discussion taking place in Egypt right now, and it knows it.

NORTHAM: Danin says the Obama administration has most likely asked Israel to just lay low for now. But Israel is having serious conversations about the Egypt situation with the administration, says Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Woodrow Wilson Center): I think the administration is doing a lot of hand-holding and minding of the Israelis. But then again, why would the Israelis bet on our assurances? I mean, we don't have the kind of information, let alone the kind of influence on the streets right now, let alone with the regime that we may have enjoyed previously.

NORTHAM: Israeli officials have made it clear they do not want to see President Hosni Mubarak's regime swept from power. And recent U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show Israel has long supported Vice President Omar Suleiman as the person to perpetuate the regime after Mubarak.

Danin, of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Israelis are privately expressing their discomfort with the White House's handling of the crisis, going hard on the Egyptian regime one day, softer the next.

Mr. DANIN: I think there are concerns in Jerusalem right now about the way the United States is moving forward and a lack of clarity about the way in which the United States is handling this. Because the U.S. is modulating its approach as developments in Egypt evolve.

NORTHAM: Dr. Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa in Israel, says the shifting stand by the White House makes President Obama look weak and indecisive, and hints that the U.S. was too quick to signal that it wanted Mubarak to go.

Dr. DAN SCHUEFTAN (University of Haifa): There has been almost unanimity here in understanding the significance of the American policy vis-a-vis Egypt, namely you can't trust the Americans. More specifically, you can't trust Barack Obama.

NORTHAM: But Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron Miller says given the dynamic situation in Egypt, both sides understand that nothing is guaranteed right now, and what's important is what happens after the dust has settled.

Mr. MILLER: The critical point will come once the transition is secured and once a process of political reform is underway, to see exactly how constraining the new Egypt is to American interests, how hostile it may be toward Israeli interests.

NORTHAM: Miller says at that point the White House will have to make decisions and calculations on how to maintain its credibility in the region without alienating allies such as Israel.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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