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Israel Warily Watches Egypt

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Hosni Mubarak may have been an autocratic dictator, but for Israel he was a key ally. He maintained the 32-year-old peace treaty between Israel and Egypt; the cornerstone, says Israel, of stability in the Middle East. And so, many Israelis were sad to see Mubarak go.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Jerusalem, they're now worrying about what'll happen next.

(Soundbite of construction)

PHILIP REEVES: This is the first day of the working week in Israel. Over the weekend, the surrounding world has changed dramatically. This morning, Israelis are wondering what to make of it.

Ms. MAZAL TOPAL (Artist): I don't think there is anybody happy about this situation in Egypt because we are worried about the fundamentalism in the Arab nations. They are coming up.

Ms. KHAVATZELET OHAVON (Travel Guide): Well, I think it's good for the Egyptian people. And I really hope that this change is going to change their life.

REEVES: As an Israeli, are you worried at all about what's happening?

Ms. OHAVON: No, I didn't thought about it in this...

REEVES: So you're kind of an optimist.

Ms. OHAVON: Yes, I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

REEVES: That's Mazal Topal, an artist. And Khavatzelet Ohavon, a travel guide.

In a way, their comments sum up the mood in Israel. There are pessimists and there are optimists. The pessimists say what's happening in Egypt is just the beginning. They fear the young Egyptians on their TVs will eventually be swept aside by the Muslim Brotherhood. The pessimists don't believe those who say the Muslim Brotherhood is significantly less extreme, anti-democratic or influential than its made out to be.

Professor REUVEN HAZAN (Political Science, Hebrew University): Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood is a minority but they are the most organized and the most mobilized, and they do scare Israelis.

REEVES: That's Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He's in no doubt about which view predominates in Israel.

Prof. HAZAN: Oh, the answer here is quite clear. And it is the pessimists.

REEVES: The pessimists fear their giant neighbor Egypt will turn into another Iran and that Israel's peace treaty with Egypt will be scrapped. That treaty's shaped Israeli geopolitical and military strategy for more than 30 years. Without it, Israel's pessimists see a future of even deeper isolation and conflict.

What about the optimists? Israel's optimists say the Egyptians celebrating in Tahrir Square don't look much like Islamist extremists, they look like secular revolutionaries. The optimists believe the military men now running Egypt largely support the peace treaty with Israel. They say it's just not in Egypt's interest to pick a fight with Israel. To prosper, Egypt's needs peace.

Anyway, say the optimists, those military men have just said they will honor Egypt's existing peace treaties. That's been welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

There are many unanswered questions here. One of them is what effect will the Egyptian revolution have on the Palestinians?

Ahmed Yousef, a former adviser to Hamas in the Gaza Strip, argues it could strengthen their hand.

Dr. AHMED YOUSEF (Former Political Adviser, Hamas): If Egypt is strong and taking the high moral ground when it comes to the Palestinian question, I do believe that all the Arabs will follow Egypt. This is the bedrock of the Arab power.

REEVES: Some of Israel's less hard-line voices, including President Shimon Peres, now say the Egyptian uprisings added to the need to secure a peace agreement with the Palestinians. But the landscape of the Middle East is complex and littered with obstacles.

Reuven Hazan cautions against connecting the Egyptian Uprising with this issue.

Prof. HAZAN: From Israel's perspective, losing Egypt is much more important than the current situation with the Palestinians, which has been at a deadlock for too long.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Jerusalem.

CORNISH: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.