Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly Cabinet meeting… (Tomer Appelbaum / AFP/GettyImages )
Reporting from Jerusalem — As turbulence continued to rock Egypt on Sunday, next-door neighbor and ally Israel was watching and preparing for possible strategic, diplomatic and even economic repercussions.
High-level officials discussed matters behind closed doors over the weekend while normally talkative ministers were silent, following strict orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We are anxiously monitoring what is happening in Egypt and in our region," said Netanyahu at the opening of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday. "Peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades, and our goal is to ensure these relations continue."
Netanyahu discussed developments on Saturday with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Israel did not reopen its Cairo embassy at the start of the business week Sunday and hastened to evacuate its nationals. The Israeli ambassador and diplomatic staff remained in Egypt after their families and a few dozen businesspeople and others were flown back home on a flight chartered by the Foreign Ministry on Saturday. Some tourists chose to remain.
Egyptian hotel officials in Sinai turned back Israeli visitors over the weekend, according to Israeli media that have been following events with around-the-clock news programming.
The peace between them may be cool at times, but Israel's decades-old alliance with Egypt has been a cornerstone of its regional strategy. Commentators fear that a dramatic change in the government in Cairo could bring down the whole structure. Israel, which is already facing a strained relationship with a former friend in the region, Turkey, could find itself further isolated.
"If Egypt becomes hostile to Israel even to the extent that Turkey is," said retired Israeli Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland, now a researcher with the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, "this will be the biggest strategic change Israel has known in the past 30 or 40 years."
If the Muslim Brotherhood takes the reins in Egypt, this could embolden the Gaza Strip-bound Palestinian militant group Hamas to try to take over the West Bank too, unsettle Jordan and create a new Middle East reality, Eiland told Israeli radio.
This concern was reflected in Sunday's headlines. "A New Middle East," said some papers, not meaning it in a good way.
For now, Egypt's relationship with Israel isn't on the demonstrators' agenda. But that could change if the government does, as the current opposition objects to the alliance. Mubarak and his government are committed to peace with Israel, said Eli Shaked, Israeli ambassador to Egypt from 2003 to 2005. But if the next president comes from different circles, "the first thing on his agenda will be to harm peace with Israel," he said in a radio interview.
Others were not so pessimistic. "I don't see the Muslim Brotherhood taking over Egypt," said Zvi Mazel, fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador to Egypt, noting that the Mubarak government and its predecessors have a long history of beating back the movement's influence. In the past, Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood as a way to protest against Mubarak, but "if reform is real and elections truly open, people will have no reason to vote for them," Mazel said.
Although this scenario would require a lot of work, Mazel said, if a reasonable government were elected "it would have no logical reason to undo peace, lose American support and pour the nation's resources into conflict with Israel instead of reforms."
Mubarak's Egypt is a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, frequently hosting peace summits, brokering Palestinian reconciliation talks and mediating indirect negotiations for possible prisoner swaps. Mubarak kept his distance from Israel, visiting only once, to attend Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in 1995. But Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief Mubarak appointed vice president on Saturday, visits frequently, if discreetly, for consultations.
Israel recently began building a fence along its 140-mile border with Egypt, in part to stop illegal infiltration of African asylum-seekers. The largely open sprawl is frequently crossed by smugglers and, on occasion, by suspected terrorists, but it is generally secure. Watching Israel's back, in a sense, Mubarak's Egypt has enabled Israel to concentrate efforts and forces on other fronts.
The two countries also have collaborated to contain Gaza and global Islamic militant forces rumored to be active in the Sinai peninsula.
There's more than security and diplomatic cooperation at stake; there's money too. Trade between Israel and Egypt isn't huge — $502 million in 2010 — but a drastic change in relations might have financial and strategic effects on Israel's energy economy. Israel is increasingly reliant on Egypt's natural gas, which is delivered by underwater pipeline.
Prominent businessman Yossi Meiman, a partner in EMG, which exports natural gas to Israel, told the media that the unrest wouldn't undermine business, which is as much in Egypt's interest as it is Israel's.
Sobelman works in the Los Angeles Times' Jerusalem Bureau.