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Israel walks fine line on Egypt turmoil

August 19, 2013|By Edmund Sanders

JERUSALEM – Worried about its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel is skirting a fine line between maintaining its usual silence on the unrest in its neighbor and openly supporting Egypt’s military-led government, which many in Israel view as the best bet for keeping a quiet border.

Officially, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has kept mum about Egypt’s recent violence, saying it does not want to take sides. Privately officials acknowledge that they were happy to see the Islamist movement Muslim Brotherhood swept from power, though they are aware that public expressions of support can backfire because of Israel’s unpopularity in the region.

In a break from that position over the weekend, an unnamed senior government official claimed in an interview with the Jerusalem Post that Israel’s Foreign Ministry was preparing to launch a diplomatic campaign to convince the U.S. and Europe to soften their criticism of Egypt’s military.

If true, it would mark Israel's most aggressive public step to date in attempting to sway the outcome of Egypt's turmoil.

After a military crackdown this month against Muslim Brotherhood supporters left more than 800 people dead, the Obama administration and European Union announced they were reviewing relations with the military-led government.

“The name of the game right now is not democracy,” the official told the Jerusalem Post. “The name of the game is that there needs to be a functioning state. After you put Egypt back on track, then talk about restarting the democratic process there.”

The official said that Israel would begin lobbying Western governments with the message that the military is the only actor in Egypt that can prevent a civil war. “Like it or not, no one else can run the country right now,” the official said.

A similar story appeared in the New York Times, also quoting an unnamed senior official.

A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment on the reports of the Israeli diplomatic campaign.

Other government officials dismissed the story, saying that there was no such effort underway by the Foreign Ministry.

“That’s not true,’’ said one of those officials, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “There is no campaign and no lobbying. We don’t interfere.”

At the same time, the official acknowledged that many in the government would prefer to see Egypt’s military remain in power since the army is the only Egyptian institution with which Israel has been able to maintain ties, albeit behind the scenes.

Cooperation between armies in Egypt and Israel has increased since last month’s coup, particularly in combating militants in the Sinai, which the governments view as a shared challenge.

Underscoring the threat, at least 24 Egyptian soldiers were killed Monday in an ambush by Sinai militants near the Egyptian border city of Rafah.

Last month, Israel agreed to allow Egypt’s military to increase its ground forces in the peninsula to crack down on Islamist militants. Last week, Israel reportedly launched a drone attack with Egyptian coordination against a team of militants suspected of preparing to fire a rocket at Israel.

Some viewed the leak as an attempt by Israel to improve its reputation with the Egyptian people, where anti-Israel sentiment remains strong.  Last week, the Rebel movement, a group of youth activists who helped trigger the anti-Mohamed Morsi coup, said they would begin a petition drive to force the military-led government to withdraw from the 1979 treaty with Israel.

Israel, like the U.S., has been attacked by both sides in Egypt’s recent fighting.

Israel’s government is particularly alarmed by recent calls by some leading U.S. lawmakers, including Sen. John McCain, to halt more than $1 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt’s military as a way to protest the recent violence.

“That would be the biggest mistake,’’ said Itzhak Levanon, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt.

The American aid was largely a reward for Egypt’s signing of the 1979 peace accord, which has remained a cornerstone of regional stability.

“If the U.S. aid were stopped,” Levanon warned, “there would be voices in Egypt saying let’s get rid of the peace treaty.”

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Twitter: @edmundsanders

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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