TEL AVIV // Israel is aiming to minimise its ties with Egypt, one of only two Arab countries with which it has a peace pact, amid Israeli concerns that the popular unrest in Egypt could give rise to an Islamist government.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has ordered a speedier construction of the barrier that the country is building along more than half of its border with Egypt, a project that was originally slated to last at least another year, the Haaretz newspaper reported yesterday, without giving sources.
The report said that Mr Netanyahu was also pushing for Israel to quicken the development of alternative natural gasfields to reduce the country's dependence on Egyptian gas, especially following Saturday's explosion in an Egyptian gas terminal that prompted the shutdown of the pipeline transporting gas to Israel. Furthermore, the premier wants to bolster Israel's use of its port in the southern resort city of Eilat on the Red Sea for the shipping of imports and exports as an alternative route to Egypt's Suez Canal, according to Haaretz.
The Israeli government is worried that the possible collapse of the government of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, in the wake of the nearly two-week-old protests in Egypt could unravel the stability of relations between the two countries and endanger Israel's security and economy.
Mr Netanyahu and other top officials have warned in recent days that Mr Mubarak could be replaced by an Islamist government that would be hostile to Israeli interests.
A blast at a gas metering station in Egypt's northern Sinai desert sharpened Israel's concerns. Egyptian state television and local government officials have blamed the explosion on saboteurs and some analysts speculated that it could have been carried out by Islamist militants looking to target Israel. The explosion is likely to disrupt the transport of gas to both Jordan and Israel, the latter of which depends on Egyptian gas for some 40 per cent of its electricity needs, for about a week.
Mr Netanyahu, in public comments during his weekly cabinet meeting yesterday, played down reports that Israel wants to reduce its reliance on Egyptian gas, saying: "No problems with gas supply are expected in Israel."
However, his statements were later contradicted by Israel's infrastructure minister, Uzi Landau. Mr Landau told an Israeli radio station that the country should step up the development of potentially massive natural gasfields discovered in the waters near the northern city of Haifa, one of which could begin operations by 2013. Chen Ben-Lulu, Mr Landau's spokesman, told reporters: "The explosion in Egypt on Saturday just proves the need to do so. We want energy independence as soon as possible."
Mr Netanyahu is likely in coming months to become more vocal about the building of the barrier that would seal about 140 kilometres of the 250km border between Israel and Egypt. The premier has long supported the project in an aim to stop the infiltration of illegal migrants from Africa via Egypt's Sinai desert as well as possible attackers against Israel.
In November, bulldozers began laying the groundwork for the barrier along the border, which stretches from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in the north to the Israeli city of Eilat in the south. Much of the border is currently open, with only patrols and watch towers monitoring the barren landscape.
As the Egyptian demonstrations appear to already be taking their toll on Israeli-Egyptian ties, the United Nations chief, Ban Ki-moon, yesterday warned that they could also have "negative sudden impacts" on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"Egypt has been playing a very strategic role in the Middle East peace process - President Mubarak was one of the key players in trying to facilitate reconciliation," Mr Ban told journalists in Munich, a day after attending a meeting of the so-called Middle East Quartet, which is made up of the UN, US, Russia and the European Union.
Referring to a possible regime change in Egypt, Mr Ban added: "This is what we are concerned about, and this is why we would like to see this transition take place in an orderly and peaceful manner without having any negative sudden impacts on the overall peace and stability in the region."
On Saturday, the Quartet urged Israel and the Palestinians to speed up efforts to break the deadlock in peace talks, but fell short of condemning Israel for its expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a key Palestinian demand for returning to negotiations.