Tel Aviv — Israelis watched elections in Egypt with the same ambivalence it has viewed the Arab Spring: historic images of Egyptians casting ballots for the first time were accompanied by troubling commentary by officials and analysts that the election is likely to empower an Islamist leadership that is more hostile to the Jewish state.
The anticipated victory by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties is expected to further complicate the 32-year-old peace between the neighbors, while boosting political Islam in neighboring Jordan and the Palestinian territories.
Last week’s street demonstrations in Cairo calling for the resignation of Field Marshall Tantawi seemed to suggest that the military leadership — which has continued close ties with Israel — is in retreat.
The military council has been a “catastrophe” as a player in Egypt’s new political scene, said Ehud Yaari, the veteran Arab affairs commentator for Israel’s Channel 2 News. “We are at the onset of the era of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted as telling Israeli lawmakers that while Israel wants to bolster its peace treaty with Egypt, the region has been destabilized by an Islamist wave. Last week he said that Arab countries “are not moving forward toward progress, they are moving backwards.”
Since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israel has managed to maintain good ties with Egypt’s interim military rulers despite a terrorist attack on the nation’s shared border that left casualties on both sides and prompted the overrunning of Israel’s embassy in Cairo. The two sides even collaborated on negotiations to release Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in Gaza and Ilan Grapel from an Egyptian prison after he was accused of being a spy.
But recent demonstrations in Tahrir Square have been a reminder of the high degree of uncertainty over who will hold sway over Egyptian foreign policy in the future.
A victory for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood will give it a leading role in drafting Egypt’s new constitution and crafting its government. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, the party platform hints that Egypt should reconsider its peace treaty with Israel, which is referred to as a “racist, settling, expansionist and aggressive entity.”
But Ed Husain, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Jewish Week that it does not appear that Egyptians have a “huge appetite to nullify the agreement or go to war.”
“Do they want Egypt to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?” he asked rhetorically. “No. Do they want to confront Israel? No. Do they want to improve relations? No. So they want to maintain the status quo without making [Israel] an issue. They want to focus on domestic considerations, not regional ones.”
Husain added that the Muslim Brotherhood is “no more anti-Israel than the average Arab in this part of the world.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to give a boost to Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as it gears up for elections tentatively set for next May against the secular Fatah party led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Affiliates of the Brotherhood have taken the lead in criticizing King Abdullah II of Jordan’s ties with both Israel and the U.S. And Yaari believes the Brotherhood’s affiliate in Syria is likely to be a player if President Bashar Assad is forced from power.
“Egypt will not be the same country for Israel, just as the whole region is not the same as we have experienced since the Arab League was established,” said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “The assumption is that it is going to be a more radical Islamist Middle East.’’
But, despite all the anxiousness, few in Israel expect the peace to collapse in the coming years or a war to break out between Egypt and Israel, a view shared by the Israeli army.
“Even if the Muslim Brotherhood is part of the next government, there is a long way to go before Egypt becomes a hostile entity,” said a senior military officer. “I don’t know what the military’s role will be in the future, but I don’t think there will be a total change because Egypt has enemies” other than Israel.
Egypt’s political and economic woes are too consuming for Cairo to abandon its peace treaty and spur conflict with Israel, thus jeopardizing the $1.3 billion in foreign aid it gets annually from the U.S.
“We know that there are those who even though they don’t love Israel, realize that the price will be very high if they cancel the peace agreement,” said Israeli cabinet minister Silvan Shalom in an interview with Israel Radio.
But Hussain said he is concerned that Congress might cut off that aid in reaction to a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“They Muslim Brotherhood is [wrongly] portrayed as monolithic,” he said. “It’s so easy to say it supported Hamas and the Nazis in the 1930s and is anti-U.S. and is persecuting Jews, so why fund them? … Can the U.S. cut off aid? Yes — and my worry is that it might.”
While the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed as virulent in its anti-Israel ideology, it is also seen as a pragmatic political player. “Their tactics and their strategy is to try to come to power in a gradual and gentle way so as not to create fear,” said Shaked. “I cannot imagine how the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to solve the inherent [economic] problems. … They will have to cope with this, taking into consideration that Egypt has no money and no energy right now to start a war against Israel. I exclude the possibility that they will initiate military acts against Israel.”
The immediate concern in Israel is that Egypt’s focus on domestic challenges has diverted attention away from the Sinai Peninsula, a vast desert region which Israel views as a growing base of operations for militants. To counter that threat Israel has accelerated construction on a new border fence and reinforced areas where the frontier is still porous.
“The political and security changes in Egypt … turned what was, until very recently, Israel’s quietest border for 30 years into a complex security challenge,” wrote Yoram Schweitzer and Ilona Dryndin, in an article published by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
In the longer term, Shaked believes the Brotherhood will seek to compete with Turkey and Iran for preeminence in the Middle East, with all three seeking to outdo one another in confronting Israel.
Others urge caution in forecasting the success of political Islam around the region like falling dominoes.
“In Egypt, it seems like the minute the Muslim Brotherhood had freedom they split into many factions,” said Yoav Stern, a former Middle East commentator for Haaretz. “Just because they succeed in one area doesn’t mean they will succeed in other places. There is close interdependency [among the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates] but it’s not identical all around.”
Some analysts cautioned that it is still too early for Israel to draw any conclusions about its future relations with Egypt’s new leaders.
Even if the new Egyptian government becomes more hostile, observers believe that the opening up of Egyptian society might give Israel more freedom to thaw the regime’s imposed “cold peace” — which limited the normalization of ties between the grass roots of the two countries.
“Throughout the history of the peace, the ability of Israel to go beyond the regime was extremely limited because everything was always tightly controlled by the regime,” said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “Even though there might be more hatred of Israel by extremists, there might be a more open framework and willingness to see Israeli realties.”
Staff Writer Stewart Ain contributed to this story.