For Israel, a Nightmare Scenario: Amid Fears That with Hosni Mubarak Gone, the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt Is in Jeopardy, Israelis Brace Themselves for Confrontation with the Neighbours

Article excerpt

ISRAEL IS WATCHING THE TURMOIL ENGULFING THE ARAB world with alarm and trepidation, fearing in particular the possible disintegration of its historic peace treaty with Egypt, which most Egyptians have abhorred since it was signed on 26 March 1979.

If that US-brokered pact collapses following the 11 February downfall of Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power, it could have a ripple effect in other Arab states ringing the Jewish state.

"The fading power of ... Mubarak's government leaves Israel in a state of strategic distress," said veteran commentator Aluf Benn.

The end of the peace deal with Egypt, the cornerstone of Israel's regional and economic policies for three decades, could have grave ramifications for regional stability and the balance of power, most immediately by possibly threatening the troubled Palestinian Authority (PA), which, with Mubarak's encouragement, has promoted a settlement with Israel.

Treaty obsolete?

The PA is already on shaky ground. It's increasingly unpopular in the West Bank. The downfall of President Mahmoud Abbas would undoubtedly doom the so-called peace process, and possibly open the door to large-scale infiltration by Islamic militants into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip from a more hostile Egypt.

During the 18 days of rage that led to Mubarak's ousting, there was little evidence of strong anti-Israeli sentiment. Despite great popular

antipathy to the peace treaty among Egypt's 80 million people, the protests focused almost entirely on political and economic reform.

With Mubarak gone, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over the reins of power, declared: "Egypt is committed to all regional and international obligations and treaties."

Two likely contenders in a new presidential election, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed El Baradei, say they would uphold the treaty despite their often sharp criticism of Israel.

But veteran democratic reformer Ayman Nour, another likely contender, has called for the renegotiation of the 1978 Camp David Accords, the basis for the 1979 treaty, declaring they are "finished".

And several leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most popular and best organised of Egypt's opposition parties, have demanded the outright abrogation of the treaty. Others call for a national referendum on the issue.

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Egypt's new foreign minister, career diplomat Essam Sharaf, appointed on 6 March, helped negotiate the Camp David Accords, but is renowned for voicing reservations about some of the clauses.

Sharaf "will not be willing to accept Israeli excesses in the occupied territories," as Mubarak did, said Professor Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid of Cairo University. "It will be very difficult for him to make the kind of concessions Hosni Mubarak made to Israel."

However, Egypt has much to lose by scrapping the treaty. Since 1979, Cairo has received $69 billion in US aid, including $l.3 billion a year in military assistance and $250 million a year in economic aid. The Egyptians, like the Israelis, have been able to sharply reduce their military budget and divert funds to economic development.

Unprecedented pressure

"Still, even in a peaceful, orderly transfer to non-Islamist civilian authority, aspects of the bilateral relationship are likely to come under unprecedented pressure, especially in an environment of diplomatic stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians," observed US analyst David Makovsky of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Illustrating Israelis' concern that their military and diplomatic triumphs of the last five decades could be undone, Prime Minister

Binyamin Netanyahu has already urged the speeding up of the construction of a security barrier along 140 km of Israel's 250 km Sinai border with Egypt. …