News analysis: Appointment of Egyptian new FM not to affect ties with Israel: analysts

March 8, 2011 12:17 pm 

By Adam Gonn

JERUSALEM, March 8 — As Egypt's new cabinet was sworn in on Monday, the selected foreign minister raises some eyebrows in Israel.

When serving as a judge in 2004 at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Nabil al-Arabi, the new Egyptian foreign minister, was part of a panel that issued the advisory opinion on Israel's security barrier in the West Bank, which called it illegal. An Israeli request to have him removed from the panel due to his allegedly anti-Israeli comments failed.

However, analysts spoke with Xinhua said that the appointment of the new foreign minister in Egypt should be seen more of an attempt to appease internal discontent than a signal on Israeli- Egyptian ties.

Mark Heller, a principal research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv believes that the move was part of an internal reform in Egypt.

"In general one can say that foreign minister in most Arab countries isn't the person that determines foreign policy, especially in issues as critical as Egypt's relations with Israel," Heller told Xinhua.

"It might have been different if it had been someone who has an independent power base or popularity like Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa, but basically this is part of a broader process of getting rid of the holdovers from former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's era," Heller said.

According to Heller, there may be some signals, like the natural gas supply, that suggest the Egyptians intend to cool what is already a pretty cool relationship, but he doesn't see any radical break of the peace agreement between the two countries.

Israel imports more than 40 percent of its gas needs from Egypt. But after an explosion on a pipeline in Sinai Peninsula early February, the supply has been cut and is yet to resume.

Analysts like Heller noted that, when evaluating what is happening in relations between Israel and Egypt, one should look at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which governs Egypt following the deposing of Mubarak.

"The army is trying to respond to popular demands for reform without breaking anything seriously," Heller said.

Heller's view is partially shared by Moshe Marzuk, a researcher at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya. He said that the Egyptian army is taking steps to convince the people that things are changing, but on the other hand senior army officers keep saying the foreign policy will continue as previously.

"The army doesn't want to be seen by the people to be continuing the Mubarak regime, so they are trying to make some changes," Marzuk said.

He pointed out that Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president by Mubarak, has almost completely disappeared from the public eye lately.

Marzuk is of the opinion that it is too early now to give the last words about the Israeli-Egyptian relations. "Until now, I don 't think Israel should try to draw any conclusions on what is happening in Egypt because the situation is still like volcanic lava. Things have to settle down," he said.

He added that last week hundreds of thousands of Egyptians continued taking to the streets to demand more changes, and if one looks at the political cartoons in the newspapers, many of them portray a picture that nothing has changed.

"The army has taken one step towards people and the reform, while on the other hand the military council wants to show that they will not allow the demonstration to continue as before," Marzuk said.

Marzuk warned that there are still many people in Egypt who refuse to have any relations with Israel.

When former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the peace agreement with Israel in 1979, it was a highly controversial decision both domestically and international. In 1981, Sadat was assassinated during a military parade and the killers were said to be motivated by their opposition to the peace treaty.

In the eyes of Michael Eppel, an expert at Haifa University, it is in the interests of both Egypt and Israel to maintain the peace agreement. He mentioned that Egypt now has become the second largest receiver of American military aid in the Middle East after Israel, with an estimated 1.5 billion U.S. dollars annually.

"Egypt will continue to honor the peace agreement because it is an asset for the country," Eppel said. (PNA/Xinhua) scs/LOR/ebp

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