x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Israel uneasy over possible Brotherhood victory

Former Israeli diplomats and analysts warn that relations between Israel and Egypt could suffer if the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi wins the presidential run-off.

TEL AVIV // Uncertainty about the outcome of Egypt's divisive presidential election is raising concern in Israel about a worsening of ties with Egypt, amid growing violence along the countries' shared border.

Former Israeli diplomats and analysts warn that a possible win by the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, over ex-Egyptian general and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq could hurt already frigid relations between the two states and peace partners.

"Top officials in Israel are very much concerned," said Zvi Mazel, who served as the country's ambassador to Egypt from 1996 to 2001. "If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over, we can foresee trouble for Israel."

Egypt will release official results from the disputed presidential elections today, the country's top elections commission official said.

Israel's border with Egypt has already become what some commentators label as its most dangerous and turbulent front that requires the deployment of the Israeli military's elite units.

Last week, militants from Egypt's Sinai desert attacked a convoy of construction workers building a security fence along the frontier, killing an Israeli civilian.

Furthermore, analysts say rising violence between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Islamic Hamas, suggests Hamas is growing bolder because it's encouraged by the rise in prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's dominant Islamist movement from which it is an offshoot.

Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and to Jordan, and currently a fellow at Israel's Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Israel would prefer Mr Shafiq to prevail in the ballot.

He said that Mr Shafiq, the last prime minister to serve under former president Hosni Mubarak, would continue the frequent and senior-level exchange on security issues that Israel and Egypt had conducted for years. "The major asset for Israel under Mubarak was the ability to conduct dialogue on the highest possible level on strategic issues. This would be gone under Morsi," he predicted.

Furthermore - unlike Mr Morsi - Mr Shafiq would also be less eager to reopen negotiations on some parts of the historic 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace pact that are deemed by many Egyptians as more favourable towards Israel, according to Mr Eran. For example, he said, Mr Morsi may demand that Israel permit more Egyptian armed forces than allowed under the treaty to enter some parts of the Sinai desert.

Experts say the political rise of Islamists in Egypt will probably further isolate Israel in the Middle East, where Egypt and Jordan are the only two countries it has relations with, while the rest of the countries are viewed by Israel as enemies.

They warn that a Muslim Brotherhood-led government is likely to open the border between Egypt and the Hamas-ruled Gaza, allowing the smuggling of weapons to be carried out openly rather than secretly through tunnels.

Hamas, considered by Israel an enemy and terrorist organisation, has already said it supports Mr Morsi and has expressed hope that he would show backing for the Islamic group in its rivalry with the secular Fatah - which dominates the West Bank - and in its resistance against Israel.

Furthermore, some experts say Israel may face another setback in its stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

While Mr Mubarak had often mediated the talks - and was viewed by many Palestinians as too closely allied with Israel - the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to encourage the Palestinian leadership to toughen its stances in the negotiations.

Israeli officials have kept mostly mum on the Egyptian elections, appearing to wait for the outcome before making public statements. Nevertheless, some have indicated that the Muslim Brotherhood may not want to risk losing US aid by antagonising Israel. Egypt has long been one of the main recipients of money from the United States, which began flowing in considerable sums following the 1979 peace pact.

Moshe Yaalon, Israel's vice prime minister, said last week: "Any rise of an Islamic regime … is worrisome. But on the other hand, Egypt today is dependent to a large extent on the peace agreement."

Israel will likely step up the construction of the fence along its border with Egypt rather than take military action to try to curb the violence on the frontier as it takes a wait-and-see approach on Egypt's political turmoil. Last week, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that completing the fence is of "supreme national interest."

Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister best known for helping negotiate the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians, said a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood - which he said had fiercely opposed the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt - would signal a deterioration in the already "deep freeze" in ties.

In contrast, Mr Beilin added, Mr Shafiq "clearly understands the significance of the peace for Egypt and wants to pledge its future continuation."