Although Egypt's first Islamist president is a critic of the Camp David accords, he said Sunday he will abide by the nation's commitments. Cautious Israeli leaders plan to watch what he does, especially on Gaza.
JERUSALEM — The election of an Islamist as president of Egypt has heightened concerns in Israel about the future of relations between the two countries — ties that have been increasingly tested since the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
But the worries raised by the victory of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi were masked Sunday in a carefully worded official response expressing readiness for continued contacts with the new Egyptian leadership and stressing the importance of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace accord.
“Israel appreciates the democratic process in Egypt and respects the results of the presidential elections,” said the statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office. “Israel looks forward to continuing cooperation with the Egyptian government on the basis of the peace treaty between the two countries, which is a joint interest of both peoples and contributes to regional stability.”
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With so much still unknown about what powers Egypt’s new president will have and the future role of the military in ruling the country, Israeli officials and analysts were wary of drawing swift conclusions from Morsi’s victory.
While Morsi on Sunday declared that his government would abide by Egypt’s international commitments, including the Camp David peace treaty with Israel, he has a long record of opposition to Egyptian-Israeli ties. Morsi has called Israelis “vampires” and has criticized the accord as a one-sided pact that Israel has failed to honor, particularly its provisions regarding the Palestinian issue.
The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel is deeply unpopular in Egypt, although the Egyptian military has for 30 years honored the treaty, serving as the bulwark protecting a critical American concern in the Middle East.
The treaty has been denounced in post-revolutionary Egypt as a legacy of the Mubarak era, and Israel has become the occasional target of street protests.
A mob stormed the Israeli Embassy last year, forcing the withdrawal of the Israeli ambassador after a border incident in which Israeli troops killed five Egyptian officers. The Israeli forces were pursuing gunmen who had infiltrated from Egypt and carried out an attack that left eight Israelis dead.
Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., said Sunday his recent conversations with Morsi in Cairo suggest the president-elect understands “the importance of Egypt’s post-revolutionary relationships with America and Israel.”
Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy, said Brotherhood officials have not indicated an intention to scrap the treaty, which has made Egypt among the top recipients of U.S. aid since it was signed in 1979.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip Palestinian enclave, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s ascent to power in Egypt has raised hopes that Gaza’s relations with its powerful southern neighbor will improve.
Mubarak collaborated with Israel in a blockade of Gaza. The blockade, first imposed after Hamas-linked gunmen captured an Israeli soldier in 2006, was tightened the following year when Hamas violently seized power in the seaside strip.
Israel said the blockade was needed to prevent arms shipments to Hamas. Under heavy international pressure, Israel lifted some limits two years ago and Egypt eased travel restrictions after Mubarak’s ouster.
Morsi hasn’t said what plans he has for dealing with Gaza, which shares a 15-kilometer (nine-mile) border with Egypt, which ruled Gaza from 1948 to 1967.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in 1928, is a Pan-Arabic movement that favors creation of a Muslim state that encompasses the entire Middle East. It has never given up that goal, but as it gains official power in Egypt, winning parliamentary elections and now the presidency, it has indicated pragmatic willingness to accept the existence of Israel.
Although some Brotherhood leaders have said they will never meet with an Israeli official, they have been careful to say they would not cancel the treaty.
Like many other Egyptians, they favor amendments — primarily to allow more Egyptian troops into Sinai. Israel has already permitted an increase of troops there, demanding that Egypt bring violent extremists under control.
Since the demise of Mubarak, Israel has watched the security situation in Sinai deteriorate into lawlessness.
Armed gangs are believed to control wide swaths of territory, smugglers have helped thousands of African migrant workers sneak into Israel and various Arab militant groups, some believed to have ties to al-Qaida, operate freely.
Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said the Egyptians would “have a lot to lose” if they canceled the peace, including Western investment and billions of dollars in U.S. aid. Even so, he warned, the treaty was not safe.
In the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of joyous Palestinians took to the streets after the result was announced. Gunmen fired automatic weapons in the air, and mosque loudspeakers reverberated with prayers. Some revelers handed out candy on street corners.
“Today is new era for us in Gaza. The days of suffering due to the Egyptian authorities are over, said Rawhi Talab, 51, a food-store owner.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh phoned Morsi to congratulate him on becoming Egypt’s first Islamist president. “This is a victory for all Arabs and Muslims, and this is God’s promise to his believers,” the Hamas leader said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a secular leader who governs in the West Bank, also congratulated Morsi. “The president expressed his respect for the choice of the great Egyptian people,” according to a statement from the official Wafa news agency.
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, an Israeli Labor Party legislator and former defense minister who had close ties to Mubarak, said he believed that Morsi “will very quickly reach the conclusion that the peace treaty is a strategic interest of Egypt no less than Israel’s.
“People in Egypt are looking for a livelihood, and if he wants to maintain Egypt’s financial resources, he will have to abandon the path of confrontation with Israel,” Ben-Eliezer said, adding that Israel should work to maintain its cooperation with Egypt’s military.
Compiled from The Washington Post, The Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Los Angeles Times