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Egyptian candidates’ tough words on peace turn Israel wary

Along the Israel-Egypt border a barrier is being built among the desert dunes.

Every few months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels hours south of his government offices to mark the progress firsthand. It is, says his office, a top priority for the government.

The barrier is just one of the signs that relations between Israel and Egypt, which have been at peace with one another since 1979, are on shaky ground.

Last month, a long-standing gas deal between Israel and Egypt was suddenly canceled by the Egyptian partner. The deal, which provided Israel with almost 40 percent of its natural gas needs, was touted as a symbol of good relations between the two countries, and the language that made up its charter carried frequent references to the 1979 peace deal between the two countries.

Now, with less than two weeks to go before the first round of Egyptian presidential elections, many in both Israel and Egypt are wondering if peace will hold.

Every Egyptian presidential candidate has publicly questioned the peace deal, leaving many in both countries to wonder if an arrangement that ousted President Hosni Mubarak defended for three decades isn’t about to fade away.

“We are closely monitoring the developments in Egypt. We have one interest, and that is preserving the peace treaty that has endured for 32 years,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor told the Israeli daily Ma’ariv. “What will happen after the elections? That is still before us, and things continue to develop all the time.”

Meridor’s sentiment is echoed by many in the Israeli security establishment, who watch with worry as the presidential candidates take shots at the peace arrangement. Some are more radical than others, such as Hamdeen Sabahi, the only presidential candidate who openly espouses the pan-Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the founder of the modern Egyptian state who fought two wars with Israel.

Sabahi has openly called Mubarak’s stance on Israel “pandering” and has promised changes if he wins the presidency, though he stops short of saying he would renounce the treaty, which President Jimmy Carter brokered between .Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the Camp David presidential retreat. But Egypt will adhere strictly to the treaty’s wording, not to any spirit of expanded cooperation. What he called “pampering” of Israel will end, he said.

“I have never agreed to the Camp David treaty and I will never accept it,” Sabrahi told McClatchy. “The Camp David treaty will remain, with its articles and conditions, but anything outside the agreement is not obligatory to either me or Egypt. The gas deal is a major example for this.”

Others, including Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, have taken a softer tone. Morsi told Egypt’s Mehwar cable channel that if elected he would abide by agreements and treaties established by the Mubarak government. But he warned that he believes Israel has already violated those agreements.

“It is our duty to respect the agreements and treaties that were established according to international law,” Morsi said. “If we take the peace treaty as an example, it has been violated several times, not by Egypt but by the other party. Egypt has never violated the Camp David treaty since it was signed. We have been respecting this treaty for more than 32 years, since ‘79, but the other party violated it over and over again.”

His references to Israel violating the peace treaty have struck a chord among many in Egypt, where the belief is common that Israel has violated the peace accord by failing to reach an agreement on Palestinian issues. Israeli military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza also violated promises many Egyptians believe Israel made.

Amr Moussa, who was foreign minister under the Mubarak regime for 10 years, stressed that view during his campaign last week.

“The Camp David treaty with Israel is considered a historical document now because one of the articles of the agreement indicated that its goals included the full, independent, self-rule for Palestinians,” Moussa said.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, insist that it is Egypt that has violated the terms of the peace agreement.

Zvi Mazel, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt from 1996-2001, calls the gas deal “part and parcel with the treaty.”

“It’s clearly a political agreement. See all the references to the peace treaty it makes? That is because this was part and parcel with the treaty,” said Mazel, who keeps a copy of the 2005 agreement in his home. He said the Egyptian cancellation of the gas deal is a harbinger of things to come.

“It is a very bad omen,” Mazel said.

Gamal Abdel Gawad Soltan, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, agrees. He said that each of the Egyptian presidential candidates would take a different course of action toward the treaty, but none of them would embrace it. He noted that the candidates’ coolness to the treaty is backed by Egyptian public opinion.

Still, Netanyahu and others in the Israeli government have sought to calm voices in Israel who believe the peace deal is doomed.

Speaking to the Israeli security cabinet, Netanyahu maintained that the failed gas deal was reparable, and that Israel and Egypt remained committed to a long-standing peace.

The peace treaty is a cornerstone of “peace and stability not only between the two countries, but also the entire Middle East,” said Netanyahu.

Frenkel, who reported from Jerusalem, and Sabry, who reported from Cairo, are McClatchy special correspondents.