Israel, knocked off-balance by Egypt upheaval, backs Mubarak

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 31, 2011 

JERUSALEM — Israel threw its support behind Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday, appealing to the U.S. and other governments to support the embattled leader and giving the Egyptian military the go-ahead to deploy forces in the Sinai Peninsula once again.

The popular uprising against Mubarak took Israel completely by surprise, and for several days the government had refused any comment. But on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was watching the unfolding events with “vigilance.”

"We are anxiously monitoring what is happening in Egypt and (elsewhere) in our region. Our efforts are designed to continue and maintain stability and security in our region,” Netanyahu said.

Israeli officials said the government had been urging the United States and other Western countries to support Mubarak at all costs. Netanyahu’s office confirmed that Israel was allowing the Egyptian military to deploy in the Sinai peninsula for the first time since the two countries signed a 1979 peace treaty.

The dramatic outpouring of Egyptians demanding the ouster of Mubarak, Israel's longest standing ally in the Arab world, shook the country's foreign policy establishment.

"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 only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists.

Mubarak has long been a trusted partner for Israel, and not only for upholding the peace agreement. He cooperated with Israel to maintain a tight cordon around Gaza, where Hamas militants now rule, and generally has been supportive of Israel's stance on peace talks with Palestinians.

Officials here now fear that the protests in Egypt 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 that 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," a Foreign Ministry official said. "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.

Israeli officials said they were hoping that Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's newly named vice president, might provide a smooth transition to a new regime.

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 negotiated for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whom Hamas is holding 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's swept the Middle East since the initial rumblings in Tunisia wouldn't 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 an 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 countries remains the only land border on which Israel doesn't have a fence or a high-tech security apparatus.

"We didn't expect the protests to gain so much momentum so quickly," the intelligence official said. "We didn't expect the riot control to be so ineffective. This was against everyone's predictions."

Writing in the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot, 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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