Israel hopes US aid cut to Egypt won't harm peace

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By TIA GOLDENBERG, Associated Press

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel hopes the U.S. decision to cut aid to Egypt will not affect the two countries' historic peace deal, a Cabinet minister said Thursday, insisting that Israeli-Egyptian ties remain as close as ever.

Gilad Erdan, the minister responsible for civil defense, said Israel and Egypt are continuing to cooperate in military and political spheres and that there is "constant contact" between the two countries.

The minister spoke just hours after the United States announced it was cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt in response to the Egyptian military's ouster last summer of the nation's first freely elected president and a subsequent crackdown on protesters.

While Erdan told Israel Army Radio that Israel has been "disturbed" by the threat of a U.S. aid cutoff, he said he hopes there would be no ramifications to the Mideast peace accord.

"I hope this decision by the United States will not have an effect and won't be interpreted as something that should have an effect" on the treaty, he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office declined immediate comment.

Israel and Egypt's landmark 1979 peace accord is a pillar of stability between the two nations and was the first peace agreement Israel signed with an Arab state.

The deal granted Egypt billions of dollars in U.S. military aid. But the threat of slashing it has raised concerns in Israel that its alliance with Egypt could be shaken and could even prompt Egypt to retaliate against Israel. Israel views the aid as an integral part of the peace accord.

Although diplomatic relations have never been close, Israel and Egypt's militaries have had a good working relationship. These ties have only strengthened since longtime President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising two and a half years ago.

With both armies battling extremist jihadi groups in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, near the Israeli border, Israeli security officials often insist that relations with their Egyptian counterparts are stronger than ever.

With so much aid at stake however, some in Israel are ringing alarm bells.

Opposition lawmaker Nachman Shai, a member of parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, said the U.S. decision was "counterproductive" and risked having the "opposite outcome" of what was intended.

"Currently the military government in Egypt is fighting fiercely terror within the country and in the Sinai and any military and political assistance is extremely important to support them in this battle," he said.

While he said it is not Israel's business to tell the U.S. what to do, he added: "What we care for is a strong government in Egypt that may block any terror from the Sinai."

U.S. officials have said the cuts would not affect spare parts and other assistance for counterterrorism in the Sinai.

But Egypt could take its frustrations over the U.S. move out on Israel, said Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.

In protest, the Egyptian military might limit its cooperation with the Israelis, which in turn would hamper Israel's efforts to fight militants in the restive Sinai, he said.

"There is much anger. Therefore it may affect badly on the direct ties" between Israel and Egypt, Shaked said. "They (Egyptians) are likely to punish Israel along with the U.S."

Shaked added that Israel largely sees the "punitive" aid cutoff as a mistake that will weaken America's influence in a volatile Middle East and harm the strategic alliance between Egypt, the U.S. and Israel.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel's military intelligence, said the peace accord with Egypt is stable and predicted it will remain so despite the decision.

"The peace treaty does not hinge on American aid. The peace treaty is a very deep Egyptian interest," Yadlin told Israel Radio. "They have no interest for Israel to be against them."

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