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Fearful of Egypt's Islamist surge, Israelis see mainly disaster in the Arab world's elections
JERUSALEM (AP) ' For Israelis, the Islamist election surge in Egypt is depressing confirmation of a deeply primal fear: An inhospitable region is becoming more hostile still.
This sentiment has been accompanied by a bittersweet sense that Israel was dismissed as alarmist when it warned months ago that the Arab Spring ' widely perceived as the doing of liberals yearning to be free ' could lead to Islamist governments.
Speaking for most people here, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the emerging result of the first round of parliamentary voting in Egypt "very, very disturbing" and expressed concern about the fate of the landmark 1979 Egyptian Israeli peace treaty.
"We are very concerned," added Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who has long warned that Egypt could potentially pose a threat. Speaking to The Associated Press Sunday, Steinitz expressed hope that Egypt "will not shift to some kind of Islamic tyranny."
Experts here, as elsewhere, point out that political Islam comes in varying shades of green: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has about a 10 percent lead over the more radical Salafists and appears far less eager to impose a devout lifestyle or seek conflict.
But most Israelis appear to have little patience for such distinctions. There is a sense that moderate Islamists are pulling off something of a con, lulling opponents into complacency, projecting a seemingly benign piety to exploit a naive public's hunger for clean government after years of corrupt, despotic rule. And there is a long memory of Iran, once friendly to Israel, where secular forces including the military helped depose the Shah in 1979 only to swiftly be steamrolled by fundamentalists.
"These upheavals are a bad thing for the modern world, for Israel," said Yitzhak Sklar, a 50-year-old Jerusalem resident. "There is something in their religion that pushes them to extremism. Their religion calls for murdering anyone who opposes them."
Smadar Perry, Arab affairs writer for Israel's top selling Yediot Ahronot daily, bemoaned Islam's "coming out of the closet" in Egypt, symbolized by the "disappearance of jeans-clad youngsters in favor of (those with) long beards and eyes ablaze with fanaticism." Islamist rule in Egypt under any stripe would be "a terrifying problem," she wrote.
Some of the fears ' for example, that an Islamist-led government in Egypt would mold itself in Iran's image ' may be overblown. Iran's clerical rule is unique in the Middle East, and the Muslim Brotherhood stresses the idea of a theocracy has no place in its ideology. Instead, it says it's committed to an Egypt that is civil, democratic, modern and constitutional.
Israeli concerns about political Islam can be traced to its longstanding battle against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and more recently to 2006, when the Islamist Hamas group swept Palestinian legislative elections.
The Hamas victory triggered a process that ultimately left the militant group, considered a terrorist organization by much of the world for its suicide bombing campaigns and other violent acts, in control of the Gaza Strip. Since then, Hamas and other militants have used the territory as a launching pad for firing rockets into southern Israel.
The stakes in Egypt are much higher. Egypt is the largest and most influential Arab nation, with a U.S.-backed army that has staunchly honored a 1979 peace agreement with Israel.
The peace agreement has been a cornerstone of Israeli security policy for three decades, allowing the military to divert resources to fight foes in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. The treaty has also been a boon for Egypt, bringing in billions in U.S. military assistance.
"We hope that any government that will be formed in Egypt will recognize the importance of the existence of the peace treaty," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech Sunday.
At the same time, he said he had ordered a speeding of the construction of a massive fence being built along Israel's long and porous border with Egypt. Netanyahu said the fence, originally envisioned to stop the inflow of African migrants into Israel, has an "additional importance, security importance" now. In August, militants entering Egypt from the Gaza Strip infiltrated that border and killed eight Israelis.
The recent Islamic election victories in Tunisia and Morocco, considered the most moderate of Arab states, along with a growing Islamic influence in post-revolution Libya, have reinforced concerns.
"What we are facing in Egypt (and) elsewhere in the Middle East is an Islamic tsunami that we in Israel, in the West, will have to cope with in coming years," said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
Shaked reflected the feeling of many in Israel that electoral wins by groups that may respect majority rule, but less so individual rights, is hardly a victory for democracy. "It seems that democracy in the Middle East has never been so far away as it is now," he said.
Israeli diplomats have cautioned against jumping to conclusions, noting that the final result in the elections for the Egyptian parliament's lower house won't be known until all stages of voting are completed in January and that presidential elections are next summer.
Yitzhak Levanon, who retired as Israel's ambassador to Egypt just last week, said officials in Cairo are well aware of the value of the peace agreement with Israel.
"There is great awareness of the importance of relations between Israel and Egypt," he told Israel Radio. "But Egypt is undergoing transformation. ... We have to monitor what's going on closely and be on guard."
He predicted tensions in the coming months between the military, parliament and a new president over division of powers. That tension and negotiations to form a majority coalition in the legislature could also limit the aims of more radical parties.
Others assess that taking on Israel cannot possibly be at the forefront of any group in an Egypt that is struggling with a desperate economic crisis. Indeed, the Brotherhood has said its priorities were to fix Egypt's economy and improve the lives of ordinary Egyptians, "not to change (the) face of Egypt into (an) Islamic state."
The Brotherhood, while no fan of Israel, has not said it wants to end the peace deal although it feels the treaty should be reviewed. The Salafis, new to politics, have not commented publicly on it.
On the societal level the Brotherhood differs as well, not favoring the imposition of strict Muslim law, preferring instead to lead by example. Elements of the Brotherhood are also known to have good ties with the military.
An emerging debate among the Islamist groups in Egypt seems to reflect this divide.
Yet on this point too Israelis consider mainly the case of Hamas, remembering their 1980s governments which ' less experienced with Islamists ' provided the group with quiet support to undermine Fatah, which was still banned here at the time.
Hamas went on to torment Israel with suicide bombings and then win the 2006 Palestinian vote because Fatah, by then Israel's ostensible peace partner, had become corrupt and detached. Palestinian voters yearned for better government, not more religion, many observers had said. Yet within a year Hamas had expelled Fatah-led Palestinian Authority forces from Gaza and has since slowly imposed its religious tenets on the population there while building up its military force.
Follow Dan Perry at www.twitter.com/Perry(underscore)Dan and Josef Federman at www.twitter.com/joseffederman