JERUSALEM — Despite its renown for gathering precise intelligence about its Arab neighbors, Israel was caught completely off guard by the political upheaval in Egypt, officials said Sunday.
The dramatic outpouring of Egyptians demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Israel's longest standing ally in the Arab world, has shaken this country's foreign policy establishment.
Top officials held lengthy talks Sunday about the implications for Israel's security, but they were unable to produce any recommendations on what steps to take.
"There is no doubt that Israel was caught with its pants down," said a minister in Israel's defense cabinet. "We were completely surprised by what is happening in Egypt right now. Nobody predicted this."
This official, like others, spoke anonymously on Egypt, because the government is maintaining an official silence, fearing that any public statement could harm Israeli interests as events unfold.
Mubarak has long been a trusted partner for Israel, not only upholding the peace agreement that was signed in 1979, after three major wars in 30 years. He cooperated with Israel to maintain a tight cordon around Gaza, where Hamas militants now rule, and generally has been supportive for Israel's stance on peace talks with Palestinians.
Defense officials told McClatchy that they would do everything they could to help strengthen Mubarak, whose regime is under severe threat after six days of street protests demanded for his ouster. But it wasn't clear how Israel could assist Mubarak and not cause him further damage.
Officials here now fear the protests will clear the way for the Muslim Brotherhood or other militant Islamic groups to take control of the country amid the chaos. But they acknowledge they have no way of knowing this will happen.
"We couldn't predict that this was going to happen, so we certainly can't predict what will happen," said a Foreign Ministry official. "All we can do is wait and hope."
A foretaste of change occurred Sunday, when Israeli officials said that possibly dozens of Hamas detainees who'd been sprung from Egyptian jails had fled back into Gaza, presumably reaching the former Israeli occupied territory through tunnels.
One fading hope was that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly named vice president, might provide a smooth transition to a new regime in Egypt.
Suleiman, who's been Mubarak's intelligence chief, has a long-standing relationship with Israel in which the two countries regularly share intelligence. In addition to taking a central role in negotiations for the reconciliation between the Hamas and Fatah Palestinian movements, Suleiman has also negotiated for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — currently being held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip. But Suleiman was also one of Israel's main sources of information about Egypt's internal situation, which led Israeli officials to let down their guard.
There's no question that Israel has sustained a major intelligence failure.
Only last week the incoming director of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, presented his regional outlook for 2011. Nowhere in his address was there mention of a possible upheaval in Egypt or instability in Mubarak's regime.
"We dedicate a great deal of resources to monitoring Egypt, therefore we — of all people — should have seen this coming," said one intelligence officer who took part in the meeting. "We are examining what failures led to our misreading of the situation."
He added that the government expected that the wave of protests that swept the Middle East since the initial rumblings in Tunisia would not affect Egypt to any great extent.
In December, Tunisians started taking to the streets to demand the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled Tunisia on Jan. 14 after 23 years in power.
Protests erupted in half a dozen other countries including Lebanon, Algeria and Jordan, all of them demanding the end to their current leadership.
In Egypt, however, Israeli intelligence officials banked on the power of Mubarak's leadership and the strength of its police and military.
The long border between the two countries remains the only land border on which Israel does not have a fence or a high-tech security apparatus.
"We didn't expect the protests to gain so much momentum so quickly," said the intelligence official. "We didn't expect the riot control to be so ineffective. This was against everyone's predictions."
Writing in the Hebrew-language daily Yediot Ahronoth, Israel's former ambassador to Egypt, Eli Shaked, opined that, "Things do not look good for Israel and the moderate Arab states. The developments from here on are not going to be good for our peace with Egypt and stability in the region."
One Foreign Ministry official said the best assessment was the headline splashed across the front pages of two of Israel's leading papers: "A New Middle East."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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