ANALYSIS: Mubarak Finds a Strong Ally in Israel

As long-standing allies and admirers distance themselves from Egypt’s autocratic regime, President Hosni Mubarak has found himself with only one serious ally left in the Middle East --Israel.

While Washington has publicly chided its stalwart ally of 30 years, urging him to stop repressing his people and speed the transition to democracy, only Israel and two conservative Arab monarchies -- the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- have publicly embraced Mubarak.

Apart from these public endorsements, however, only Israel has taken concrete steps to demonstrate continuing support for the first Arab country to shatter Israel’s regional isolation by making peace in 1979.

Although that peace agreement specifically forbids Egypt from stationing forces in the Sinai Peninsula, which was demilitarized by the 1979 peace accords, Israel permitted Egypt on Monday to deploy 800 soldiers there to protect police headquarters and other government installations from being attacked by angry Bedouin and other protesters and to prevent chaos from spreading.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Mubarak by phone early in the crisis, the Israeli press reported, assuring him of Israel’s continuing support. Netanyahu, breaking almost a week of silence about the mass protests and riots sweeping Egypt, on Monday warned Islamic extremists could well fill a political vacuum and threaten the peace between the two nations.

His warning came during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government also has been increasingly critical of Mubarak. Netanyahu grimly chided his visitor by warning an “organized Islamic group” could easily exploit the chaos in Cairo now welcomed by so many leaders.

Netanyahu was clearly referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, which has been hostile to Israel’s peace with Egypt. Muslim Brotherhood members were increasingly visible in recent days in the street protests, shepherding demonstrators and organizing their movement in Tahrir Square and other parts of Cairo.

“It happened in Iran,” the prime minister told reporters. “A takeover of oppressive regimes of extreme Islam violates human rights, grind them to dust…and in parallel, also pose a terrible danger to peace and stability.” Netanyahu had previously said virtually nothing about the uprising in Egypt, beyond saying he was "anxiously following" the unrest in Cairo and other cities “with vigilance,” and that Israel remained committed to peace with Egypt.

The Obama administration has stepped up its demand that the Mubarak government “respect” the will of its people and begin a “transition” to a more representative government. On Monday, the foreign ministers of the European Union called for Mubarak to adopt "substantial democratic reforms" that would lead to "free and fair elections in Egypt.”

By contrast, the Israeli daily newspaper Hareetz reported over the weekend that the Israeli Foreign Ministry had sent a directive to roughly a dozen key embassies in the U.S., Canada, China, Russia and several European countries, instructing its ambassadors to stress to their host countries the "importance of Egypt's stability." The newspaper said that the diplomats were ordered to “get this word out as soon as possible."

Israel’s relations with Egypt are crucial to Israeli’s national security in a region whose inhabitants are increasingly critical of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and other aspects of Israeli policy. All Israeli governments since President Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel have been deeply concerned about maintaining close ties with Egypt.

It is Egypt, for instance, that has helped Israel and the United States maintain the embargo around the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant Islamist Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel and opposes peace. Cairo, like Israel, has also been critical of Iran’s efforts to flex political muscle in the region and its nuclear policies. Finally, Mubarak has been a stalwart mediator in efforts to persuade the Palestine Authority on the West Bank to make peace with Israel and a go-between on other diplomatically sensitive issues.

In Tahrir Square Tuesday, where tens of thousands of Egyptians turned out to demand that Mubarak leave office, anti-Israeli sentiment was obvious. Protesters calling for Mubarak’s resignation chanted slogans asking whether they should be issuing their demands in Hebrew, the “only language” that Egypt’s president understands. In addition to remaining largely silent himself, Netanyahu has ordered his ministers not to comment on Mubarak’s plight -- an order that has largely been observed, an unusual event in Israel, where government ministers are routinely quoted in the free-wheeling Israeli press on all foreign policy and domestic matters of state.

President’s Obama’s implicit but public criticism of Mubarak was an abrupt reversal of his administration’s traditional support for Egypt, a linchpin of American policy in the Middle East. Only days before, Secretary Hillary Clinton had pronounced Egypt’s government “stable.”

The reversal has also reignited concerns within Israel about Washington’s reliability as an ally and friend.

In a story published by Ynet, an English-language Israeli online news service, Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S. policy from Bar Ilan University, urged Israel to rethink its dependence on Washington, despite widespread support for Israel in the U.S. Congress and positive public opinion ratings.

Gilboa accused President Obama of having “stabbed Mubarak in the back” and warned America’s policy reversal on Egypt means Obama could “turn his back” on Israel.

He urged the Israeli government to focus more on strengthening Israel’s ties to developing powers like India, with whom Israel enjoys military cooperation, and China, and even Europe. Eitan Haber, adviser and speechwriter for late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, also wrote in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s most popular Hebrew daily, that Obama’s abrupt abandonment of its long-standing friend on the Nile raised profound doubts about American reliability in a political crunch with Israel.