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Israel Watches Egypt Developments

GUY RAZ, host:

Now, while the crisis in Egypt has captivated the Arab world, there's been a notable silence from Israel. That's in part because anything Israeli leaders say now could inflame the situation.

Egypt is one of the only countries in the Arab world with full diplomatic ties to Israel, and perhaps Israel's most important strategic ally in the region. But it's also a deeply unpopular relationship among many Egyptians who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians.

So what might happen to that alliance if Hosni Mubarak is ousted? For more, I'm joined by Aluf Benn. He's editor-at-large for the Israel newspaper Haaretz. He's in Tel Aviv.


Mr. ALUF BENN (Editor-At-Large, Haaretz): Hi.

RAZ: First, Hosni Mubarak has been an important partner for a succession of Israeli government. Is it fair to say that the current government in Israel is worried?

Mr. BENN: Obviously, it is. As it has been in the past several years, Israelis have been worried about succession in Egypt. I argued long ago that if Israeli leaders could make one wish, it would not be to do away with the Iranian regime or with the Iranian nuclear program. It would be to find a life-extending medication for President Mubarak to be there indefinitely because he was seen in Israel as the cornerstone of stability in the region.

And Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his first and only reaction to the events in Egypt, stated that Israel cares for stability. And I believe that behind closed doors and even semi-closed doors, the main fear in Israel is the rise of an Islamic republic next door.

RAZ: So you're saying essentially that the alliance between Israel and Egypt hinges on the personality of this one man, on the personality of Hosni Mubarak?

Mr. BENN: No, but it hinges on the structure of the regime built around Mubarak. And if it's replaced by an Iranian-style Islamic republic, fiercely anti-Israeli, which unlike Iran is not 1,500 kilometers away but around the corner with very modern army, with the most sophisticated American weapons, it's a different ballgame for Israel.

RAZ: Now, there are economic agreements, military and security agreements between Israel and Egypt. If those were to unravel, what kind of instability would that create for Israel?

Mr. BENN: Well, the peace treaty with Egypt allowed Israel to cut its defense expenditures since the mid-'80s to this day. It fueled economic growth in Israel, and it also allowed Israel to concentrate its strategic interests and military effort in the north and in the West Bank and Gaza, while the Egyptian front that was the main front of Israeli-Arab wars from 1948 through the mid-'70s has been quiet.

RAZ: Aluf Benn, Israel has long argued that its security concerns over borders, for example, are directly related to the potential for instability in neighboring countries. Does the situation in Egypt in some way play into the more intractable positions taken by the current Netanyahu government? In other words, is there an element of I told you so going on here?

Mr. BENN: Of course, there is, because Netanyahu has argued for years that we cannot trust the peace treaties because they are hinged on the personalities of leaders who might be there today and not be there tomorrow.

And only recently, Netanyahu reminded his audiences that we had peace with Iran, with very close cooperation during the shah. And then overnight, the shah disappeared, and we got the (unintelligible) regime in power there. And the same might happen elsewhere.

RAZ: That's Aluf Benn. He's editor-at-large for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, speaking from his office in Tel Aviv.

Aluf Benn, thank you.

Mr. BENN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.