JERUSALEM, Israel — Israelis are watching with growing wariness the burgeoning protests against President Hosni Mubarak's regime, a long-standing pillar of Israel's regional standing with which the Jewish state shares a peace treaty and strategic cooperation.
The fall of the Mubarak regime would be ''a disaster for Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Europe and the U.S.,'' said Eli Shaked, former Israeli ambassador to Cairo. ''I don't see among our friends someone who will benefit from this horrible scenario.''
In a sign of how worried the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is, officials have been ordered not to comment on the rumblings next door. Nevertheless, speaking on condition of anonymity, officials are confirming they are deeply concerned. For Israel, Mubarak has been a linchpin of moderation in the Arab world and a bridge between Israel and Arab countries.
''It's a strategic ally and has been since the 1979 peace treaty,'' an official said. ''There are many shared interests, we share a border, we live in the same neighborhood, we face the same challenges.''
In addition to adhering to the treaty through all wars and crises since it was signed in 1979, Egypt shares Israel's animosity toward Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that runs the Gaza Strip, as well as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. And both are wary of Iran's growing power in the region.
''We think the regime is holding its ground and won't be closed as a regime but there is a lot of uncertainty as to the next move,'' the official said.
The main concern voiced by analysts is that Mubarak would be replaced by forces who oppose the peace treaty, possibly the Muslim Brotherhood. ''The worst case scenario is that someone from the opposition takes over,'' said Shaked. ''Among the first things they could do is cut relations with Israel to get more popularity from labor unions, students and among the Muslim extremists to unify the opposition.''
However, officials say, the end of the Mubarak regime would not necessarily mean the end of the peace treaty. ''If indeed Mubarak falls, which doesn't seem plausible at the moment, it is not necessarily the Islamists who will take over,'' the official said. ''Another political force may understand the need for U.S. assistance and that the peace treaty is a strategic asset for Egypt.''
Zalman Shoval, a former adviser to Netanyahu, does not believe the Egyptian regime is in danger of imminent collapse or that Mubarak will be forced from power like Tunisia's Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali was two weeks ago. ''The main pillar of strength in Egypt is the army and I believe the army is loyal to the regime and I don't see anything happening similar to Tunis,' he said.'
However, clashes escalated in Cairo and elsewhere after Friday mosque prayers with police using water cannons, rubber bullets and batons and demonstrators throwing rocks. Nobel peace laureate Mohammed el Baradei was attempting to join the demonstrations but was pinned down in a mosque after being water cannnoned. He has offered his leadership to those seeking regime change.
The protests have marked the biggest challenge ever to the authoritarian rule of Mubarak, who succeeded the assassinated president Anwar Sadat in 1983 and has ruled on the basis of draconian emergency laws ever since.
Many Israelis did not think Egyptians had it in them to rebel. Shoval said:
''The Egyptian people as a whole — although its always foolish to generalize — are basically a pacific people who are not necessarily eager to engage in bloodbaths, but still having said that I think there is concern and should be concern in Washington because it shows some of the attitudes of the U.S. administration and concepts regarding the Middle East as a whole were probably mistaken.''
In particular Shoval believes the administration has erred in putting too much emphasis on the Palestinian issue and believing that it is the key to solving regionial instability.
''It's been proven once again the Palestinian-Israeli issue is not the main factor or even one of the main factors in stability in the Middle East and what happened in Tunis, Egypt, Algeria has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.''
''When the [U.S.] administration is formulating its policies regarding the Middle East it should regard the emphasis it wants to put on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a proportionate fashion and not think that this is the issue which has to be put under pressure to produce immediate results." Shoval said.