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Israel's worst nightmare

Muhammad Morsi, Egypt's new president, first entered the political fray as an opponent to the Camp David peace accords. It's a worrying fact for Israel.

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Thousands of Egyptian supporters of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi (portrait) gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square on June 19, 2012. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — In many ways, Muhammad Morsi, the newly elected president of Egypt, is Israel's worst nightmare.

Morsi first entered Egypt's political fray as an opponent of the 1979 Camp David Accords, which ushered in an era in which Israel — shunned by every Arab nation since its inception — could finally dream of a regional peace.

As the accords were signed, grown men cried on the streets of Tel Aviv.

All subsequent peace accords, with Jordan and with the Palestinian Authority (ongoing) are predicated on the template established by the Camp David Accords: land for peace, even if a cold peace; business ties to establish ongoing bilateral interests, if not love.

“I'm not optimistic,” said Dr. Liad Porat, a professor of Middle East history at Haifa University, about the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations. Porat is one of Israel's leading experts on the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization to which Morsi belongs. In order to complete his PhD, he read every Brotherhood publication from the 1970s onward.

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“I think that for now, we can expect a continuation of an in internationally palatable public relations line. But the Muslim Brotherhood is now the official voice of Egypt, even if the governing party is called Freedom and Justice. They will want to prove their loyalty to Hamas and their zealotry against Israel.”

Porat believes in a slippery slope in which Egypt, without canceling outright its treaty with Israel, will slowly become the principal agent inciting against it on the international stage. He thinks Egypt will reduce its relations with Israel to the bare minimum required to maintain its ties to the United States, which provides Egypt with $2 billion in annual aid.

"I think eventually he will bring it to a popular vote,” he said about Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. “And of course, it will be phrased as he wants to phrase it."

The changes in Egypt have already had practical implications for Israel. Israel's embassy in Cairo was once the Jewish state’s pride in the Arab world. But last September a crowd emanating from Tahrir Square stormed it. So today, Israel's ambassador to Egypt is based in Jerusalem, flying into Cairo only when necessary.

Israelis know Morsi as the founding member of several anti-Israeli committees within the Brotherhood organization, and from his five-year-long stint in Egypt’s parliament, during which he actively legislated against Israel.

But some Israeli analysts are hopeful that, as president, Morsi will be different.

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"Morsi is no longer a candidate," said Elie Podeh, a professor fo Islamic and Middle East studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "He now carries real responsibility, and his election, with only 51 percent of the vote, does not grant him a secure margin. He will have to prove his legitimacy and his interest in really governing the entire nation — including minorities, his political opposition, and really, the world."

From one historical perspective, however, things could not be worse.

David Ben Gurion, Israel's founder and first prime minster, theorized that Israel's future in the region would be guaranteed by ties with non-Arab nations, principally Iran and Turkey. His hypothesis was that by keeping Iran, Turkey and Egypt — the regional colossus — apart, Israel could survive.

"For the first time, we're faced with the fact that all three of these countries are led by Islamic fundamentalists," said Hillel Frisch, a professor at Bar Ilan University and expert on military and security affairs in the Arab world.

Still, for now, Frisch, who wrote a devastating analysis of the prospect of an Islamic-led Egypt last year, is betting on realism overcoming ideology.

Frisch is optimistic that Egypt's precarious economic situation will lead it to "tame its ideological passions."

"I have no doubt that Morsi hates Israel and wishes for its destruction," he stated blankly. "The Muslim Brotherhood has been saying that since 1928 and Morsi, at 61, in unlikely to radically change his beliefs."

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But for now, he said, Morsi's inclusive, placatory first speech as president-elect looks promising.

Israel's former Defense Minister and former Minister of Trade and Industry, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, now a Labor Party member of parliament, is probably the Israeli most closely associated with the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. Iraqi born and bred, a native Arabic speaker, he was the military governor of Judea and Samaria when peace with Egypt was signed. Less than a decade ago, he was the architect of Israel's oil deal with Egypt, establishing a pipeline crossing the Sinai desert.

"I feel that we are facing a new dawn, a new world, a new Middle East," he said, possibly mocking President Shimon Peres' oft-repeated definition of the Oslo peace accords as "the dawn of a new Middle East."

"This one is much more religious, much more Israel-hating, Islamist, and to my great regret the central axis of this is Egypt," Ben Eliezer, a personal friend of Egypt's ousted president Hosni Mubarak, said in a conversation with GlobalPost.

For now, Ben Eliezer predicts a “drastic” cooling down of relations between Israel and Egypt.

"[Morsi] will go down to the lowest possible denominator while making sure he keeps getting the American $2 billion," he said.

Ben Eliezer envisages that Morsi, as president, will attempt to renegotiate one of the basic articles of the peace agreement, whereby the Sinai desert, bordering both nations, became a demilitarized zone. The Sinai, he says, could "turn into a regional powder keg."

"I am very pessimistic," he added.

Nonetheless, the former minster hopes that Israel acts on two fronts, continuing to nurture its extant military and intelligence ties to Egypt, and finding a route to a dialogue with the Islamists.

The unknown, as he sees it, is vast.

"People talk as if this revolution were over, but we are right at the beginning. We are still in the earthquake. Morsi will have to make some cardinal decisions, the first being which direction he chooses. The people want food, work and housing. The masses who demonstrated in Tahrir Square want something back for their efforts, they want hope, and life. They have expectations. Morsi has to decide if he is going toward a conflict with Israel or if he will pursue the course of the revolution, and focus on social, economic and democratic demands."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/israel-and-palestine/120625/israel-morsi-egypt-election