Israel’s peace with Egypt is a regional bulwark that both countries are working to protect, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday as protesters in Cairo kept up demands for a swift transfer from military to civilian rule, as an Iranian commander said the revolutionary fervor sweeping Egypt and other Arab countries has given birth to “new Irans.”
The remarks underscored concern in an increasingly isolated Israel that Egypt’s interim military rulers could be succeeded by a popular, Islamist-dominated opposition that resents Cairo’s three-decade-old relations with the Jewish state.
“This peace ensures the stability of the heart of the Middle East. It ensures orderly movement on what might be the world's most important shipping lane,” Netanyahu told reporters, referring to the Suez Canal, over which Israeli and Egyptian forces frequently battled before their 1979 peace treaty.
“It ensures economic stability and the potential for economic prosperity -- both of Egypt and of Israel, as well as of other countries in the region. It guarantees quiet,” Netanyahu said, according to Reuters.
“We are acting together with Egypt to maintain the peace. We know that there are a great many elements which are trying to violate the peace, even as we speak.”
Israel has been alarmed by the “Arab Spring” of revolts that swept the long-serving leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya from power this year.
Anti Western wave
In a separate address to Israel’s parliament on Wednesday Netanyahu reiterated a prediction that Arab political upheaval would become “an anti-Western wave, and anti-liberal, and anti-Israel too, and ultimately an anti-democratic wave as well.”
That outlook is cited by Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government in explaining its reluctance to relinquish occupied West Bank land to the Palestinians, one of several disputes that have stalled a U.S.-sponsored peace process.
Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize Israel under a U.S.-brokered deal returning the occupied Sinai to Cairo. Netanyahu’s critics accuse him of preferring to settle Israelis in the West Bank rather than make a similar land-for-peace deal that would pave the way for an independent Palestine.
The Sinai, a desert peninsula which long worried Israel as a gun-running conduit to Palestinian militants in the neighboring Gaza Strip, has seen security fray further since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.
In August, infiltrators killed eight people in southern Israel and Israeli forces pursuing the gunmen killed five Egyptian border guards. The Netanyahu government apologized for the Egyptian deaths, but a mob stormed Israel’s Cairo embassy the next month, forcing diplomats to evacuate.
The Israelis have since tried to cast Egypt’s internal upheaval as having little long-term impact on bilateral ties.
Israel’s armed forces were quick to deny a newspaper report that their intelligence chief had briefed Netanyahu's cabinet on prospects for an abrogation of the peace accord with Egypt.
In an example of the importance of direct contacts, the military said on Thursday it had received word from Egypt about an overnight clash between Sinai police and smugglers, near the site of a gunfight between Israeli troops and suspected smugglers on Israel's side of the border.
The incidents took place an hour apart and caused no crisis because of good communication between the countries, said Amos Gilad, a senior Israeli defense official.
“Ultimately, the military liaison channels did an excellent job here ... At this of all times, we have to preserve the best possible relations.”
Giving birth to “new Irans”
Meanwhile, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force said Thursday the revolutionary fervor sweeping Egypt and other Arab countries has given birth to “new Irans” that share anti-US sentiment.
“A number of major (new) Irans have been born in the region today. Egypt is a (new) Iran, whether you accept it or not,” Major General Qasem Soleimani told a gathering of 50,000 Basij militia members in the southern city of Kerman in a rare appearance, the Fars news agency reported.
The Quds force is the shadowy special operations unit of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards which operates abroad. The United States has accused Soleimani and other Quds members of being involved in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Soleimani’s remarks came after deadly clashes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters were holding renewed pro-democracy demonstrations.
He drew parallels between the upheaval in several Arab countries and Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, telling arch-foe the United States: “Know that today Libya, Yemen and Bahrain are also (new) Irans.”
These “great nations will stand together against the threat” of Western powers, he was quoted as saying, according to AFP.
Tehran has portrayed the Arab spring as being inspired by its own Islamic revolution.
U.S. officials, however, have said they see it as a new movement that could yet spread into Iran and topple the regime there.
Soleimani has long been under scrutiny by U.S. officials, who accuse him of supporting Iraqi militias hostile to the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The Quds chief also responded to comments by two neo-conservative military experts in Congress suggesting, in a hearing in late October, that the United States should assassinate senior Revolutionary Guards commanders, including Soleimani.
“To those who think threats will spread fear amongst us, I will say this: that I ask God to grant me martyrdom (death) at the hands of the enemy,” he said.
“I do not see (an assassination) as a threat but rather giving, helping along an old desire,” he was quoted as saying.