JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel is urging the West to stick by Egypt’s army in its confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, quietly echoing warnings by U.S. regional ally Saudi Arabia against putting pressure on the military-backed government.
“Israel shares its views with the U.S. and some EU (European Union) countries, and those views are to give priority to restoring stability,” a senior Israeli official said on Monday.
“And like it or not, the army is the only player that can restore law and order (in Egypt).”
With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet instructed by him to avoid public comment about turmoil in Egypt, where about 850 people, including 70 police and soldiers, have been killed in nearly a week of violence, government officials have been speaking, anonymously, about Israel’s concerns.
Among them is any sign of weakened support for an Egyptian military that maintained close security ties with Israel even during the year-long rule of President Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader deposed by the army on July 3 after huge protests against him.
Responding to the mounting death toll on Egypt, the United States has postponed delivery of four F-16 fighters and scrapped a joint military exercise with the Egyptian armed forces, but has not withheld $1.55 billion in annual aid.
That decision, one Israeli official said, “raised eyebrows” in Israel, which signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 that has been underpinned by a working relationship between the armed forces of both countries.
But other officials insisted there was no formal Israeli lobbying drive in Washington to dissuade President Barack Obama from taking any stronger measures to try to curb the Egyptian military crackdown.
“When we speak (to U.S. officials), we clearly say what we think. It doesn’t mean there is a campaign. We share our views and analysis,” one official said.
“With what other neighbor of Egypt can they speak about this? We are the only nation they can speak to what’s right on the border; obviously there’s a lot to exchange.”
Israel, hoping to preserve its peace treaty with Egypt, was muted in its response to Mursi’s election as president a year ago after autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Netanyahu was vocal in the past about his fears of an Islamist takeover in Egypt.
Such a scenario, he said in 2011, represented a “tremendous threat” to Egyptian-Israeli cooperation.
Elsewhere in the region, Saudi Arabia has publicly cautioned the West against measures aimed at reining in the military in its efforts to curb the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We will not achieve anything through threats,” Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, told reporters in Paris on Sunday ahead of an EU foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels to review the 28-nation bloc’s Egyptian policy.
Israel sees Egypt’s armed forces as critical in confronting Islamist fundamentalism on a national level and dealing with attacks by Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, which has a long desert border with the Jewish state.
Deepening Israel’s worries about increasing lawlessness on its doorstep, suspected Islamist gunmen killed at least 24 Egyptian policemen in an ambush in Sinai on Monday.
Just last week, Israel’s Red Sea resort of Eilat, on the border with Sinai, was targeted by a rocket apparently fired by Islamist militants. It was shot down by an Israeli missile shield.
Tzachi Hanegbi, a legislator from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and a confidant of the prime minister, said it was also in Washington’s strategic interest to maintain good relations with Egypt’s leaders.
“Every year, Egypt gets 1.5 billion dollars, mainly in military aid. The U.S. military ... gets preferential treatment for passage in the Suez Canal and in Egyptian air space. All these things have greatly assisted the United States in its operations in the Middle East,” he told Army Radio on Sunday.
Hanegbi, a member of parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that while Washington needed to voice its displeasure over bloodshed in Egypt, “the paramount U.S. interest is not to take steps from which there is no way back”.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Allyn Fisher-Ilan, editing by Mark Heinrich