OCCUPIED JERUSALEM – The sweeping win of Islamists in the first phase of Egypt's parliamentary elections has sent shockwaves through Israel, leaving the Jewish state jittery about its future with its heavyweight neighbor.
"To have the biggest Arab country taken over by the Muslim Brotherhood is not good news," Uri Dromi, a spokesman for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, told Reuters.
"They will be more hostile, but not to the point of breaking the peace deal."
Islamist parties maintained a sweeping lead in the first phase of Egypt's parliamentary elections, held last week.
The Muslim Brotherhood's party gained more than 40% of the vote, while Salafists got nearly 20%.
Established in 1928 in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most powerful opposition force in Egypt.
The group is hostile to the policies of Israel and its chief ally the United States in the Middle East.
It has historic links with the Palestinian resistance movement Hamas and shares its belief in armed struggle against Israel.
The Muslim Brotherhood says it will respect democracy and maintain international treaties, but critics say that such language masks the group's goal of turning Egypt into an Islamic state by stealth.
Israel's regional strategy is underpinned by its 33-year-old peace deal with Egypt, enabling it to scale back dramatically its military budget and helping it maintain the status quo in its troubled relations with the Palestinians.
Egypt under ousted former president Hosni Mubarak also provided Israel with 40 percent of its gas needs.
But some elements of the relationship have sagged since Mubarak's fall.
The gas pipeline has been repeatedly blown up in Sinai, the Israeli embassy in Cairo was mobbed by protesters in September and Egypt's ties with Hamas are warming.
Israel urged the United States to do more to bolster Mubarak in his final days, and resentment still lingers over the West's perceived failure not to have propped up his unpopular regime.
Already preoccupied with the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the widely predicted electoral triumph for Islamists in Egypt has strengthened the sense of encirclement in the militarily powerful Israel.
"The government is obviously very worried by what it has seen since the start of the Arab Spring," Shlomo Brom, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told Reuters.
"When Israelis think of Islamic governments, the model they see in their eyes is the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said, adding that it was far from clear how an Egypt controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood would look.
Israel's defense minister Ehud Barak said Saturday the initial results of Egypt's parliamentary elections were "very, very disturbing".
Netanyahu himself earlier said that Israel may soon have to increase defense spending to face the challenge of growing Islamisation across the Arab world.
"The security threats to Israel are growing and soon we will need to decide about the defense budget, both in order to strengthen active defense systems ... and to strengthen physical defenses," he told a parliamentary committee last month.
A jittery Israel is also at pains not to aggravate the Arab world, however, going as far as to delay demolition of a rickety footbridge at Al-Quds (occupied East Jerusalem), fearing the work could spark Muslim anger.
"There were reports in the Egyptian media that if Israel were to undertake unilateral steps, that the hate at Tahrir Square would be turned against (Israel)," an Israeli official said this week, referring to Cairo's main public protest site.
Fearing its growing isolation, Western allies have urged Israel to resume peace talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose secular Fatah movement is looking increasingly out of place in the changing Arab order.
In an unusually blunt public statement on Friday, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Israel to get back to the "damn" negotiating table and take steps to address its isolation.
Peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis broke down last year over Israel's refusal to halt settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Senior INSS researcher Brom said with Egypt's election process underway, Israel should try and seize the initiative.
"It can't just sit and wait. There are no guarantees that we can get an agreement, but we have to show the Arab Street that we are making an effort," he said.
But such a move looks unlikely, with a significant slice of Israeli society increasingly downbeat about striking a land-for-peace deal with Palestinians given the rise of Islamists.
"Why establish now yet another Arab country, when its sister countries are all disintegrating one after the other? The Arab Spring came along and buried the idea of a Palestinian state," said Herzliya's Bechor.
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