x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Morsi 'good riddance' for Israel

Egyptian military's removal of Islamist president reduces Israeli fears over deteriorating ties and possible conflict with Cairo.

TEL AVIV // The removal of Egypt's Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, is likely to be welcomed by an Israeli leadership concerned over deteriorating ties and possible hostilities between the two countries, ex-diplomats and analysts said.

Even as coordination between the two nations' militaries has advanced smoothly in recent months, relations between the governments of Israel and Egypt - which have held official ties since a historic 1979 peace pact - have dwindled since Mr Morsi took power in June last year.

"For Israel, it's good riddance," said Zvi Mazel, who served as Israel's ambassador to Egypt between 1996 and 2001. "Had he stayed in power, his Muslim Brotherhood party would have probably turned against Israel, taken over the army and even started a possible war with us."

According to experts, no Israeli government official had visited Cairo during Mr Morsi's rule, and Egypt has still not returned its ambassador to Israel after recalling him in November in protest against Israel's attack on Gaza.

In Israel, Mr Morsi's presidency had spurred worries that his government might take steps to violate the peace treaty and possibly provide more backing to Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza and which Israel views as an enemy. Gaza, which borders both Israel and Egypt, has been the target of two major Israeli army assaults since 2008.

Despite such fears, Mr Morsi was instrumental in mediating a truce between Israel and Hamas in November following an Israeli incursion into Gaza that led to eight days of hostilities, winning praise from the United States and other western countries for his role.

Still, Mr Morsi's political exit may spur security risks for Israel. Some analysts warned on Friday that the uncertainty over who will now rule Egypt is raising Israeli concerns about instability and escalating violence in the Sinai Peninsula on Israel's southern border with Egypt. Israeli officials have long feared that militant groups will bolster their activities in Sinai and take advantage of chaos in Cairo to stage cross-border attacks against Israel.

Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli justice minister and prominent peace activist best known for his efforts in helping negotiate the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, said: "There is concern in Israel because in the current situation, the Egyptian army might be too busy trying to control Cairo and not have time to control Sinai."

Israel has been untypically silent about Mr Morsi's removal.

Mr Beilin said the government was hoping that a "pragmatic leader looking to improve relations with Israel" would become the next Egyptian president and help warm diplomatic ties between the neighbours.

He said the worsened political relations between Israel and Egypt had also affected bids by left-leaning figures like him to involve Egypt in resolving Israel's long-simmering conflict with the Palestinians and mitigate tensions with Hamas.

He added: "For years, I personally used to go to Egypt at least twice a year to meet the foreign minister and others to discuss the conflict. But I lost my Egyptian contacts since Mr Morsi took power and have not initiated going there because I knew there would be no counterparty."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae