BEIRUT

Analysis

Egyptian status quo ends for Israelis, Palestinians

Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq speaks at a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, June 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Far apart on so many issues, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas almost certainly see eye to eye on the Egyptian presidential election.

Both would like Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief who served as Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, beat the Muslim Brotherhood's anointed candidate, Mohamed Mursi, in the June 16-17 ballot.

For Israel, a Shafiq victory would provide a modicum of reassurance after months of anxiety triggered by the ousting of Mubarak -- a period of uncertainty that has raised doubt about the viability of Israel's historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

For Palestinian leaders in the occupied West Bank, success for the bluff, secular Shafiq would bolster them in their interminable struggle with Hamas, an Islamist group born from the Muslim Brotherhood and which controls the Gaza Strip.

But with the Islamists already dominant in the new-look Egyptian parliament, both Netanyahu and Abbas know that there will be no simple return to the status quo that Mubarak offered, which provided them both with sturdy cover at home and abroad.

"The Muslim Brotherhood has become a strong part of the Egyptian political formula and no one can ignore them, not even a president of a different color," said Talal Okal, a Palestinian political analyst based in the Gaza Strip.

Islamist gains in Egypt have strengthened the sense of encirclement in the militarily powerful Jewish state, already preoccupied with the nuclear ambitions of Iran.

Israel's regional strategy was underpinned by its peace deal with Egypt, enabling the country to scale back dramatically its military budget and helping it contain its troubled relations with the Palestinians.

Mubarak's Egypt also supplied Israel with 40 percent of its gas needs. This deal has now gone up in smoke.

Few expect that a victorious Mursi would trash the peace accord -- too much foreign aid depends on it. By the same token, nobody here expects anything more than frigid relations from a man who is quoted as calling Israelis "vampires".

"Some think the Brotherhood will become more pragmatic once in power, but this is doubtful. We prefer the 'ancien regime', which Shafiq represents," said Efraim Inbar, head of Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

From Israel's perspective, one of Mubarak's great advantages was that he helped maintain a tough blockade on Gaza. Hamas hopes a Mursi presidency would loosen the economic shackles of a boycott Israel says is meant to stop the flow of arms to Gaza.

Hamas, which does not recognize Israel's right to exist, also believes that with the Brotherhood fully in control in Cairo, its position in its internal struggle for supremacy against the Western-backed Abbas would be greatly strengthened.

"To a great extent Islamists in Palestine see their future tied to the victory of Mursi, which would complete the circle and leave the Islamists in full control of the entire Egyptian political system," said Okal, the Gaza analyst.

Israel was an easy campaign target for Egyptian presidential candidates, who enthusiastically tapped into popular antipathy towards the Jewish state, promising to revisit the peace accord.

Although Israeli officials rule out any wholesale review of the treaty, there might be some wriggle room on the military annex which at present allows Egypt to maintain just 230 tanks and one infantry division in the Sinai.

The desert peninsula has become increasingly lawless since the departure of Mubarak, Israel says, and some analysts believe a more robust security presence would be in everyone's interest.

"If Egypt asks to reopen the military agreement then the Israelis should agree to changes, so long as they are reasonable," said Oded Eran, a former diplomat and senior researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

"This would give the agreement a new lease of life under the auspices of the Muslim Brotherhood."

Even if such cooperation comes to pass, it will not dispel anti-Israeli sentiment that is so widespread in Egypt.

Some argue that this antipathy, evident in the sacking of the Israeli embassy in Cairo last September, is tied to the fact that there is still no peace deal with the Palestinians.

But Israelis who have lived in Egypt, which has fought four wars against the Jewish state, say the reasons are much more deeply rooted and see no quick fix, whoever wins the presidency.

"No matter where the Egyptian turns, he absorbs hatred of Israel," said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, complaining of rampant anti-Semitism in schools and the media.

"The Mubarak regime encouraged this trend ... and used it to release steam by the public and distract attention from the poverty and backwardness in Egypt. It will remain in place, as there is no end to the hatred," he added.

 

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