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US response to Egypt draws criticism in Israel

President Barack Obama's response to the crisis in Egypt is drawing fierce criticism in Israel, where many view the U.S. leader as a political naif whose pressure on a stalwart ally to hand over power is liable to backfire.

Critics — including senior Israeli officials who have shied from saying so publicly — maintain Obama is repeating the same mistakes of predecessors whose calls for human rights and democracy in the Middle East have often backfired by bringing anti-West regimes to power.

Israeli officials, while refraining from open criticism of Obama, have made no secret of their view that shunning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and pushing for swift elections in Egypt could bring unintended results.

"I don't think the Americans understand yet the disaster they have pushed the Middle East into," said lawmaker Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who until recently was a Cabinet minister and who is a longtime friend of Mubarak.

"If there are elections like the Americans want, I wouldn't be surprised if the Muslim Brotherhood didn't win a majority, it would win half of the seats in parliament," he told Army Radio. "It will be a new Middle East, extremist radical Islam."

Three decades ago, President Jimmy Carter urged another staunch American ally — the shah of Iran — to loosen his grip on power, only to see his autocratic regime replaced by the Islamic Republic. More recently, U.S.-supported elections have strengthened such groups as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and anti-American radicals in Iran.

"Jimmy Carter will go down in American history as 'the president who lost Iran,'" the analyst Aluf Benn wrote in the daily Haaretz this week. "Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who 'lost' Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and during whose tenure America's alliances in the Middle East crumbled," Benn wrote.

Israel has tremendous respect for Mubarak, who carefully honored his country's peace agreement with Israel after taking power nearly 30 years ago.

While relations were often cool, Mubarak maintained a stable situation that has allowed Israel to greatly reduce its military spending and troop presence along the border with Egypt.

He also worked with Israel to contain the Gaza Strip's Hamas government and served as a bridge to the broader Arab world. Israeli leaders have said it is essential that whoever emerges as Egypt's next leader continue to honor the peace agreement.

For more than a week, Egyptians fed up with deepening poverty, corruption and 30 years of Mubarak's autocratic rule have massed across the country to demand his ouster. The backlash has forced Mubarak to announce he won't run in September elections, but that has not appeased protesters, who want him out now.

In the course of the turmoil, the Obama administration has repeatedly recalibrated its posture, initially expressing confidence in Egypt's government, later threatening to withhold U.S. aid, and lastly, pressing Mubarak to loosen his grip on power immediately.

"We want to see free, fair and credible elections," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday. "The sooner that can happen, the better."

Critics say the U.S. is once again confusing the mechanics of democracy with democracy itself.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed similar sentiments this week when he warned that "if extremist forces are allowed to exploit democratic processes to come to power to advance anti-democratic goals — as has happened in Iran and elsewhere — the outcome will be bad for peace and bad for democracy."

So far, no unified opposition leadership or clear program for change has emerged in Egypt from the anti-government protests, which have been led by secular activists. Historically the leading opposition in Egypt has been the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that favors rule by Islamic law and has been repressed by Mubarak throughout his tenure.

Many young people see the former director of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, as Egypt's democratic hope, but critics say he is out of touch with Egypt's problems because he has spent so many years outside of the country.

The calls for democracy inside Egypt have put the U.S. in an awkward position of having to balance its defense for human rights with its longtime ties to an authoritarian regime that has been a crucial Arab ally.

In Israel, critics say the U.S. has suffered a credibility loss by shaking off Mubarak when his regime started crumbling. They say Israel will have to think twice about relying on the U.S. as it is being asked to make what could be risky territorial concessions to the Palestinians as part of a future peace agreement.

"The Israeli concept is that the U.S. rushed to stab Mubarak in the back," said Eytan Gilboa, an expert on the U.S. at Bar-Ilan University.

"As Israel sees it, they could have pressured Mubarak, but not in such an overt way, because the consequence could be a loss of faith in the U.S. by all pro-Western Arab states in the Middle East, and also a loss of faith in Israel," he said.

Raphael Israeli, a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, echoed a widely felt perception that before the unrest erupted, the Obama administration paid only lip service to the lack of human rights in Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

"If Obama were genuinely concerned with what is going on in Egypt, he should have made the same demands two years ago (when he addressed the Muslim world in Cairo) and eight years and 20 years ago. Mubarak didn't come to power yesterday."

"As long as there are no problems, the oppression works," Israeli said. "If the oppression doesn't work, suddenly it becomes urgent. That's unacceptable."