Palestinians, Israelis closely watching Egypt instability

Concerns of how instability in the most populous Arab country could affect its neighbors.

Protesting in Egypt (photo credit: Reuters)
Protesting in Egypt
(photo credit: Reuters)
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest attempt to get Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table has been forgotten in the huge protests that are sweeping Egypt, and the concerns of how instability in the most populous Arab country could affect its neighbors.
In Israel, the first concern is for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, signed in 1979, and which many Israeli officials consider one of the country’s most important strategic assets. When current president Mohammed Morsi took power a year ago there were calls from his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues to cancel the treaty. Yet one of his first acts in office was to state that Egypt will respect all previously signed agreements.
Now, if Morsi is unable to reach a compromise with the demonstrators by Tuesday, as seems likely, the army could step in as it did when long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak resigned in 2011. That time, the army was in control for more than 18 months.
“The military in Egypt are not from the Muslim Brotherhood but from Mubarak’s time,” Eli Shaked, who was Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 2003 – 2005 told The Media Line. “They understand the importance of the peace treaty and they will not allow any civilians to abrogate the treaty.”
However Shaked says Israeli officials are more concerned that if the chaos in Egypt continues, the army will give up on efforts to stop weapons smuggling from the Sinai peninsula into Gaza. The Sinai, which Israel acquired in 1967 from Egypt, and later withdrew from as part of the peace treaty has long been a center for smuggling and human trafficking. Shaked says that the Egyptian army is trying hard to keep Sinai safe.
“So far they are doing a nice job -- clearing the area from terrorist cells, cleaning out what used to be called Philadelphia road corridor (along the border) and the tunnels, trying to stop terrorists from infiltrating into Sinai,” Shaked said. “But the situation is deteriorating and there is some concern.”
Some Israeli military officials say the army has not done enough to crack down in Sinai. Last year, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in an ambush in Sinai, and Israeli officials say Hamas in Gaza has now acquired the latest in weapons technology which came through the tunnels between Sinai and Gaza.
Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007, is even more concerned by developments in Egypt than Israel is. Hamas is an offshoot of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and ties between the two countries since Morsi’s election have been close. If Morsi is forced to abdicate, Egypt’s support for Hamas could decrease.
“What’s happening is really bad news for Islamists all over the Arab world, not only Hamas in Gaza,” Basem Ezbidi, a professor of political science at BirZeit University told The Media Line. “Islamists are realizing that it’s easier to criticize than to get your hands dirty with actually governing.”
However, he says, there could be some good news for Palestinians. Hamas and Fatah have been unable to move toward “national reconciliation” which would pave the way for long-overdue elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians remain divided as Hamas controls Gaza, and the more moderate Fatah reigns over the West Bank. Polls show the vast majority of Palestinians want the two sides to end their feud, which began when Hamas used force to take over Gaza in 2007.
Israel has also used the internal divisions within the Palestinians as a reason not to return to the negotiating table. How can Israel even consider withdrawing from any part of land acquired in 1967 if the Palestinians cannot guarantee that their entire public would accept any peace deal.
Now, if Hamas is weakened, Ezbidi says, it could push it toward national reconciliation.
“Hamas is realizing it’s about time to get back to internal Palestinian scene and deal with questions of national unity by really showing willingness and realistic conditions,” he said. “But at the same time if Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas sees that happening he will raise his conditions and terms.”
Ezbidi says most Palestinians are apathetic and have lost any hope in a peace deal with Israel.
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