It is important to retain Egypt as an ally but Israel has contingency plans in case Cairo rescinds its peace treaty with Jerusalem, former IDF chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said, in his first public appearance as a civilian.

Speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Monday evening, he said, “I think that the peace treaty with Egypt, as cold as it is, is of strategic importance to the State of Israel and I hope that that will be the case but we have to be ready for that,” referring to the possibility that a new government in Egypt will not recognize the peace treaty with Israel.

“We have planned for this situation,” he added.

The retired general said he believed the Egyptian people should recognize the contribution of their ousted president Hosni Mubarak, and warned against radical elements seizing power.

“Mubarak, with all the criticism over the last three decades, was an anchor of stability in the region – we should admit it, and I hope that would be the case in Egypt,” he said. “There is a weakening of the moderate camp.”

Earlier Monday, Presidents’ Conference Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said that a secret visit he recently made to Syria could signal that President Bashar Assad wants to improve relations with the West.

Hoenlein confirmed in an Associated Press interview Monday that Assad invited him to Syria. Hoenlein said he was not acting as an envoy for Israel, but that he spent hours discussing a variety of issues with Assad.

Asked about the trip by The Jerusalem Post, Hoenlein smiled.

“Would you believe I went there for the beach?” he answered facetiously. “I was invited, I did not go as an emissary of the prime minister or anyone else. I went on a humanitarian agenda and had never discussed what happened. All of these quotes in the media are not from me.”

Hoenlein’s organization is here for its annual gathering in Israel which is taking place in the shadow of the recent toppling of Mubarak.

“No matter what issue you take up it’s had an impact,” he said. “If you talk about Israel-Palestinian relations, if you talk about regional issues, talk about the peace process, talk about Israel-US relations, talk about some of the strategic interests this now dominates it because it’s given the issues uncertainty and unpredictability. In the age of globalization everything is interrelated.”

He said bringing democracy to Egypt would necessitate the creation of democratic institutions in that country, but that it could not simply be “wished” into existence.

In the first few days of the uprising in Egypt and after Mohamed ElBaradei returned to his native Egypt to support protests there, Hoenlein was quoted by American press as calling the former International Atomic Energy Agency head a “stooge” for Iran.

“I made a reference in an obscure place and I simply said…he tends to be lionized as this human rights guy,” Hoenlein said. “Look at his record at the IAEA and the report in the Egyptian press that he got seven million dollars from Iran for his presidential aspirations and... People don’t understand who he is and I can tell you I got calls from some Egyptian intellectuals a week later who were really appreciative.”

Hoenlein, arguably the closet American-Jewish leader to Netanyahu, has been the director of the Presidents’ Conference for the past 24 years. The US foreign policy advocacy group was created at the behest of US president Dwight Eisenhower to speak with one voice for the disparate Jewish establishment in the US.

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