JERUSALEM — Israeli officials Friday were full of misgivings and uncertainty over the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, fearing the Jewish state will lose its staunchest ally in the region and that the popularity of Islamist groups is on the rise.
Government officials wouldn't comment publicly on the impact of Mubarak's resignation for Israel — Egypt's northern neighbor. But officials said they're "very hopeful" that a "Mubarak mimic," such as Vice President Omar Suleiman, would succeed him.
Others in Israel predicted an uncertain horizon.
"Egypt has completely lost its status in the area, while Turkey and Iran are on the way up. It's a different world," said Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. "As long as we had Mubarak, there was no void in our relations with the region. Now we're in big trouble."
Israel's once strong ties with Turkey and Jordan have turned rocky. Popular protests in Jordan against the moderate government of King Abdullah have targeted his ties with Israel. Turkey and Israel have clashed over Israel's invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009 and its botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla that killed nine Turkish nationals last May. Turkey released its findings on the incident Friday, largely blaming Israel for the deaths of the Turkish civilians.
"From this day on, I only have lots of questions about what will be, what will be the fate of the peace treaty between us and the Egyptians? And how will this effect the entire regions?" former Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben Eliezer told an Israeli TV channel.
Ben Eliezer, a past envoy to Egypt, was widely considered the closest Israeli official to Mubarak. Earlier in the crisis, he told McClatchy that he was speaking to Mubarak by phone regularly, and that Mubarak had been seeking an "honorable way out."
Israel had been one of the Mubarak's few outspoken supporters. Israeli officials disparaged the protesters as "radicals."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that the Egypt should be given time for a slow "change" rather than a rapid shift of power to the hands of "extremists."
Barak told ABC news Israeli should tell Egypt, "We respect your need to avoid it falling into the hands of extremists. We understand that you need some time . . . . The real winners of any short-term election, let's say within 90 days, will be the (opposition) Muslim Brotherhood," Barak said.
Israeli security officials said that an Egyptian government controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood would have a "destabilizing" effect on the entire region.
"Israel relied on Egypt to maintain the peace and the status quo in the region. We know Mubarak and could work with him. The big question is what comes next," said one Foreign Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of policy.
"If Suleiman takes over, it would ease a lot of minds in Israel. He is — very much — in the vein of Mubarak and we would trust him to maintain the peace," the official said.
Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt has been the basis of Israel's Middle East policy, allowing the Jewish state to focus its defense concerns elsewhere, said Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, chief of planning for the Israeli army. Egypt has backed Israel on its tight blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Speaking at the Herziliya security conference in Israel earlier this week, Eshel said Israel's diplomacy in the region would be jeopardized if Egypt falls into the hands of a more Islamist group. "It will become more difficult for Israel to control events and their outcomes" over the coming year, Eshel said.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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