JERUSALEM – The Egyptian military's reaffirmation of its country's peace treaty with Israel has not allayed fears here that the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak will bring a hostile regime to its southern border.
The conservative Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best-organized opposition group in Egypt, inspired the violently anti-Israel Hamas group that rules Gaza. With the professed goal of establishing an Islamic state in Egypt, the Brotherhood won 20 percent of the vote in 2005 elections, arguably the freest the country ever had.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood is believed to have lost support in Egypt since then and disavowed violence decades ago, that has done little to calm Israelis, who say regional history suggests reason for concern.
Three decades ago, Iranians rebelled against the autocratic regime of the shah, only to install Islamic fundamentalists. More recently, U.S.-backed elections have strengthened the Islamic militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, anti-American radicals in Iraq and Hamas militants in the Palestinian territories. All have ties to Iran.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman cautioned that political ferment was a breeding ground for Iranian influence.
"Iran penetrates every place that is unstable," he told members of his Yisrael Beiteinu faction. "When I see what is happening in Algeria and Tunisia and the entire region, what bothers us is Iran. I wouldn't want see them take hold in other places."
The Muslim Brotherhood does not have ties to Iran, but its religious fundamentalism has Israelis worried.
"The fear (in Israel) is that the Muslim Brotherhood will influence the army, the ranks of which are filled with religious soldiers and officers, and push it to undermining the peace treaty" Israel and Egypt signed in 1979, the Yediot Ahronot daily wrote.
The Brotherhood, founded in 1928 and outlawed in Egypt 26 years later, opposes the treaty and endorses the right to armed resistance against Israel. But its leaders have said they would not actively seek to nullify the accord.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama played down prospects the Muslim Brotherhood would take a major role in a new government, calling it only "one faction in Egypt" that does not enjoy majority support. He also expressed confidence that a representative government the U.S. could work with would emerge "if Egypt moves in an orderly transition process."
The Brotherhood's strain of conservative Islam falls short of the radicalism of Afghanistan's Taliban, or of the puritanism that reigns in Saudi Arabia. Though some in al-Qaida have roots in the Brotherhood, the terrorist group and other jihadists despise the movement for participating in elections.
Their willingness to run for office is what has Israel worried.
"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," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned last week.
Netanyahu cooled his rhetoric Sunday, welcoming the Egyptian army's announcement a day earlier that Egypt would continue to respect its peace deal with Israel — the first between an Arab state and Israel.
"We believe that it is the cornerstone of peace and stability not only between the two countries, but of the Middle East as a whole," Netanyahu told his Cabinet.
Leftists and secularists inspired by a popular revolt that toppled Tunisia's longtime dictator were the engine behind the protests that drove out Mubarak. The Brotherhood joined the demonstrations but did not hijack them as many feared.
Still, many Israelis distrust the Muslim Brotherhood's official claim that it has no interest in running Egypt.
Retired Israeli Gen. Yaakov Amidror accused the Brotherhood of obscuring its real intentions.
The world must "make no mistake," he wrote in Sunday's Israel Hayom, a newspaper close to the Netanyahu government. "This is a radical movement that aspires to enforce Islamic law in Egypt by means of a battle against the non-Muslim world, and it perceives the peace agreement with Israel as illegitimate."