Israel watches Egyptian elections as rockets hit its south
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REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM — As voters in Egypt cast presidential ballots on Sunday, Israelis next door remained watchful and wary, with few comments from official speakers.
The silence, however, was punctuated by the sounds of rockets launched at southern Israel over the weekend, which Israeli security officials said appear to have been fired from the northern Sinai.
Though denied by Egyptian sources, Israeli security sources were quoted in Israeli media claiming the rockets were fired by a Hamas-affiliated group of Bedouins at the request of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, denied the organization was involved.
Regardless of who launched the rockets, their firing is evidence of the chaos in Sinai as several antagonists of Israel try to foster bad relations between the neighbors, said Yom-Tov Samia, formerly in charge of Israel’s southern command.
But peace between the neighbors remains is a first-rate strategic interest for both, Samia added in a radio interview, noting that Egypt does not have the resources for armed conflict and Israel already faces uncertain scenarios with Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, former defense minister and among the Israeli politicians to have the warmest ties with Mubarak’s Egypt, told media that regardless of what side wins the Egyptian elections, channels of dialogue between the two countries must be maintained. ‘I trust the government to find the right way to Egypt’s new leadership, even the Muslim Brotherhood,’ he said, ‘whoever is elected will soon realize his first problem is feeding millions. Conflict with Israel will not feed them.’
Ben-Eliezer too hopes the new leadership understands that ‘peace, good neighborly relations and trade ties with Israel are an express Egyptian interest.’
Like others, he warns that lawlessness in Sinai is a regional threat. ‘Sinai has become a place where terrorists from all far-flung corners of the globe feel at home. There’s no way this can continue and no Egyptian government will accept it either,’ he said.
Relations with Israel are something of an election issue but ‘not the highest priority on Egypt’s national agenda,’ according to former ambassador to Cairo Eli Shaked, who also believes new Egyptian leaders will have to tend to pressing socio-economic matters.
With a paralyzed economy and declines in tourism, Egypt will need billions of dollars in aid, Shaked says, far more than U.S. aid and trade agreements related to the peace treaty with Israel. But if that doesn’t happen, Shaked fears Israel and the entire Middle East ‘could suffer when it turns out that the new government of Egypt has no solutions to the country’s socio-economic problems either.’
Israeli experts view an ongoing power vacuum in the Sinai as having potentially serious security and economic implications. The repeated sabotage of the natural gas pipeline in Sinai has disrupted Israel’s energy plans and raised the cost of electricity to both consumers and environment.
But ultimately, Samia says, Israel’s main concern is ‘not what happens in Sinai but what happens at Tahrir Square,’ the bottom line of Israel’s concerns being that the peace is preserved.
— Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: An Egyptian woman shows her ID to the polling station chief during the second day of the presidential runoff election in Alexandria, Egypt, on Sunday. Credit: Manu Brabo / Associated Press