TEL AVIV // Israel’s leaders warned yesterday against the possible rise of Islamist rule in Egypt amid growing worries that Israeli security could be jeopardised by an Egyptian regime change.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, warned that if a radical regime were to replace Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak “as occurred in Iran and elsewhere, the result can be a blow to peace and democracy.”
Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, cautioned that “extremist” Islamic groups could take advantage of popular protests in Egypt to try to seize power.
Mr Netanyahu was due yesterday to hold an unscheduled meeting of his 15-member security cabinet to discuss how Israel may be affected by the unrest in Egypt, Israel’s only Arab peace partner aside from Jordan.
The predominantly right-wing government of Mr Netanyahu has not hidden its support for Egypt’s authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, amid massive calls for his resignation. The foreign ministry earlier this week ordered its diplomats in the US, Europe and other regions to encourage their host nations to back Mr Mubarak and stress that it’s in the West’s interest to maintain his rule.
Mr Peres’s statements yesterday, which Israeli media reported were made during a meeting in Jerusalem with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, reflected Israeli fears that democratic elections in Egypt could prompt the rise to power of Islamist groups that are friendly to Hamas and other organisations hostile towards Israel.
“The world should learn from what happened in Gaza,” Mr Peres told Ms Merkel, a reference to Hamas’s victory over the secular Fatah movement in a Palestinian legislative election in 2006. The group then entered into an uneasy coalition government with Fatah but a year later, Hamas violently routed Fatah forces from Gaza and has since controlled the enclave. The takeover prompted the Palestinian president and Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to dissolve the alliance. Tensions between the two groups have since escalated.
Mr Peres added: “The world saw what happened in Gaza when democratic elections took place and brought to power a dangerous and extremist movement that has not granted Gazans even a day of democracy.”
In response to a request from Egypt, Israel on Monday approved the deployment of about 800 Egyptian troops in the Sinai Peninsula for the first time since the two countries signed a historic peace agreement in 1979. The treaty, under which Israel had returned the Sinai to Egypt after capturing it in the 1973 Middle East war, defines the peninsula as a demilitarised area and limits the security presence there to police forces.
The deployment of the two Egyptian battalions came after reports that Islamic activists, who had escaped from several Egyptian prisons, fled across the Sinai and entered the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip through tunnels. Hamas is viewed by Israel as a terrorist organisation. Israel has frequently joined forces with Egypt in efforts to curtail arms smuggling into Gaza from Sinai.
In a reminder of Israeli concerns about a possible escalation of violence by Gaza militants should the smuggling of weapons escalate, Israel’s military said yesterday that two Grad-type rockets were fired at its southern communities from Gaza late on Monday, the first time in several months that such rockets hit Israeli territory. The army charges that Iran, which backs Hamas and which Israel views as its arch enemy, supplies Grad rockets to Hamas.
The Israeli government’s deep concern at the possibility that the Egyptian protests could threaten the three-decade-old peace agreement has been met with some condemnation by some of the country’s liberal media.
Yesterday, the Haaretz daily newspaper urged Mr Netanyahu to prepare for a “new regional order” and treat the possibility of democratic rule in neighbouring Arab countries with less suspicion. Its editorial said that Israel should stop catering to autocratic regional leaders such as Mr Mubarak while ignoring neighbouring countries’ citizens, whom it accused the government of viewing as “devoid of political influence in the best case and as hostile Israel-haters in the worst case”.
“Israel sees itself as a Western outpost and displays no interest in the language, culture and public opinion of its immediate surroundings,” Haaretz wrote. “Instead of seeking refuge in the known and the familiar … Israel’s foreign policy must adapt itself to a reality in which the citizens of Arab states, and not just tyrants and their cronies, influence the trajectory of their countries’ development.”