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MIDEAST: How Israel Misses Mubarak

Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, Feb 12 2011 (IPS) - As Israel’s public television aired live pictures of crowds of elated Egyptians celebrating the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, the anchor suddenly had a telling twist of tongue.

Following reports of fireworks in Israeli Arab town and villages, she announced, “We’re just receiving fresh video from Haifa of pro-Mubarak demonstrations.”

A show of nostalgia for the ex-president was poured on primetime news. Analysts and former officials reminisced fondly the Egyptian leader, hailing him as an anchor of stability in an unruly Middle East. Suddenly, the “cold peace” between Israel and Mubarak’s Egypt was evoked with utmost warmth.

Danny Yatom, former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, drew consolation from the fact that the Egyptian military establishment to whom Vice-President Omar Suleiman had just handed over the reins of power were long-time acquaintances.

Like Suleiman, Mubarak’s defence minister Hussein Tantawi, the emerging power broker in the Supreme Military Council that has pledged to ensure a transition to democratic rule in Egypt, has over the years developed personal connections with Israeli defence ministers.

Contacts between the two armies had been ongoing throughout the uprising. Israel willingly contravened demilitarization agreements, allowing two Egyptian army battalions into Sinai in order to quell the unrest in the Peninsula.

“It’s too early to foresee how the post-Mubarak era will affect things,” an Israeli official initially told IPS. “We hope that the peace accord will remain.” Officials believed that, at least in the near future, the regime change will not alter those relations dramatically.

This forecast was later confirmed by a statement of the Supreme Council underlining the military’s “commitment to all Egypt’s international treaties.” The communiqué was “welcomed” by a communiqué issued by the Prime Minister’s Office.

But what will happen if, and when, the Supreme Council transfers its power to an elected civilian government is the overriding question of all Israeli decision-makers.

The culmination of the 18-day revolution came during Friday’s Muslim evening prayers, conveniently at the start of the Jewish Sabbath. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu customarily refrained from public appearances and official statements.

Instead, the Prime Minister held “intensive consultations” behind closed doors on the evolving situation, Israel Radio reported Saturday. Netanyahu’s advisers were trying not only to fathom the impact of the revolution on Israel’s bilateral relations with Egypt but also to sound out U.S. intentions with regard to the new reality, and, significantly, with regard to its consequences on the relations between the two allied countries.

To that effect, Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser, was reportedly dispatched to Washington.

There has been much Israeli reticence towards the Obama Administration. The U.S. attitude has been portrayed as being “naïve”, “confused” – even “irresponsible” – for having adopted “zigzagging” positions and issuing “contradictory” statements.

Israeli politicians have openly blamed the U.S. for sewing “panic” amongst its “moderate” Arab allies in the region and, as a result, in Israel itself. In short, President Obama has been declared guilty of “deep misunderstanding” of the region.

“Washington frightened Israel even more than it did Mubarak,” wrote columnist Yoel Marcus in the weekend edition of the liberal daily Haaretz.

Despite moderate declarations issued by spokesperons of the Muslim Brotherhood that the movement does not intend to set its sights on the presidency in future democratic elections, the spectre of an Iran-like Islamist revolution in Egypt was still the primary concern of Israeli decision-makers.

The prevailing sentiment for the long term was one of stern pessimism:”We have a tough period ahead of us,” Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador in Egypt, told Israel television. “Iran and Turkey will consolidate positions against us. The new reality in Egypt won’t be easy.”

Doom mongers predicted that Iran would grasp the moment to instigate revolutions in Arab countries with a strong Shiite minority.

Last week, Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s fear of an Iranian-style Islamist revolution taking place in the post-Mubarak era.

“We are the unrivalled experts in creating doomsday scenarios when we feel the behaviour of the U.S. is not to our liking,” noted Marcus.

At this moment of heightened uncertainty, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, was due in Israel on Sunday and Monday. He was scheduled to meet Netanyahu, the outgoing head of the armed forces, Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and his successor Benny Ganz, a former defence attaché in Washington.

Mullen was due to “reassure our Israeli partners that our commitment to them, and to the military relationship that we have enjoyed with them, remains strong,” an aide to Mullen, told news agencies.

This did not seem to assuage Israeli public opinion. The U.S. presidential “desertion” of the embattled Egyptian leader has been compared time and again to another “desertion” – that of Iran’s Shah by President Jimmy Carter during the 1979 revolution that brought the Shiite Islamist regime in power.

Most Israelis seem to elude the fact that, the same year Carter had facilitated Israeli-Egyptian peace, perhaps because of his later criticism of the long occupation of Palestinian lands.

Grudgingly, they are ready to concede that, ultimately, the Egyptian people’s demand for democracy and human rights could not be suppressed.

But the realisation that the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions might be the beginning of an Arab re-enactment, not of the Iranian revolution, but of the fall of the Iron Curtain ten years later, does not appear to make them aware of the need to prod their prime minister that he translates his peace declarations towards the Palestinian Authority into a new reality.

And, despite two popular anti-occupation uprisings sustained during the Mubarak era, Israelis seem impervious to the inevitability of a Palestinian drive for independence. And, that recognising the need for a Palestinian state might just help restore the sought-for regional stability they are craving for.

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