- Associated Press - Sunday, January 30, 2011

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that his government is “anxiously monitoring” the political unrest in Egypt, his first comment on the crisis threatening a regime that has been one of Israel‘s key allies for more than 30 years.

Israeli officials have remained largely silent about the situation in Egypt but have made clear that preserving the historic 1979 peace agreement is a paramount interest. The peace, cool but stable, turned Israel‘s most potent regional enemy into a crucial partner, provided security on one of its borders and allowed it to reduce the size of its army and defense budget significantly.

“We are anxiously monitoring what is happening in Egypt and in our region,” Mr. Netanyahu said before his Cabinet’s weekly meeting.

Israel and Egypt have been at peace for more than three decades, and our objective is to ensure that these ties be preserved. At this time, we must display responsibility, restraint and utmost prudence.”

It was the first high-level comment from Israel on the Egypt protests, which began last week with disorganized crowds demanding the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak and have grown into the most significant challenge to Egypt’s autocratic regime in recent memory.

Over the weekend, Israel evacuated the families of its diplomats from Cairo, and security officials began holding urgent consultations.

Israel‘s primary concern is that the uprising could be commandeered by Egypt’s strongest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its allies, who presumably would move Egypt away from its alignment with the West and possibly cancel the peace agreement with Israel.

Israel has an interest in Egypt being democratic, but through a process that promises sustainability,” said Dan Shueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. “If you have a process that starts with a desire for democracy but then sees radicals take over, then the result at the end of the process is worse than what you had at the beginning.”

The benefits to Israel of peace with Egypt have been significant.

In the three decades before the peace agreement, Israel and Egypt fought four major wars. Israel now spends 9 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, Mr. Shueftan said — compared with 23 percent in the 1970s, when a state of war with Egypt still existed.

Where Israel once deployed thousands of soldiers along the Egyptian frontier, today there are several hundred. This reduction allowed the Israeli economy to begin flowering in the years after the peace deal, he said.

Mr. Mubarak also has served as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

If Egypt resumes its conflict with Israel, Israelis fear, it will put a powerful Western-armed military on the side of Israel‘s enemies while also weakening pro-Western states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, offered a grim assessment Sunday in the daily Yediot Ahronot.

“The assumption at present is that Mubarak’s regime is living on borrowed time, and that a transition government will be formed for the next number of months until new general elections are held,” he wrote.

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