Israel fears new war as Egypt teeters on brink of anarchy

A protester throws a gas canister towards Egyptian riot police during clashes in Cairo last weekend

A protester throws a gas canister towards Egyptian riot police during clashes in Cairo last weekend

A former Israeli defence minister has said that the growing chaos in Egypt could lead to an all-out conflict on Israel's southern border.

Knesset member Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who had close relations with the Mubarak regime, said on Monday that while Israel needed to maintain its co-operative relationship with Egypt, "it's not working now".

"We are willing to co-ordinate everything with them but the control is not with the army - it's with the masses. We have to get used to that," said Mr Ben-Eliezer.

The renewed violence in Tahrir Square this week in which over 40 civilians have been killed has called into question the ability of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to keep order. The military council has ruled Egypt since former President Hosni Mubarak's departure in February.

A veteran Israeli intelligence officer said on Monday: "We are in a period of deep uncertainty now with Egypt, even more than we were in February. The interplay between the generals, the Islamists and the pro-democracy forces is murky and even among the generals, there seems to be discord. Tantawi's grip over his colleagues is far from absolute."

Control is with the masses. We have to get used to it

Following the revolution at the beginning of this year, leading Israeli defence figures kept up a dialogue with their Egyptian counterparts, but one senior IDF officer admitted this week: "We are talking to them less than in the past. It is much harder to make meaningful contact with what is going on right now in Cairo."

Meanwhile, recent developments in Syria have convinced analysts in Israel that the end of President Bashar al-Assad's rule is closer than was previously expected. Armed opposition groups have intensified attacks on regime targets and the possibility of outside intervention is growing.

One intelligence officer remarked on the speed with which the situation has moved in the past few days. He said: "We are beginning to count the time left for Assad in days."

A key development is the pace with which large numbers of Syrian army defectors have formed armed underground groups and carried out increasingly daring attacks on army and security service bases. This has been happening not just in outlying areas, but also in Damascus.

Until recently, Israeli intelligence believed that President Assad was maintaining control of his armed forces and that the number of defectors was not significant. This appraisal has changed in recent days.

The other main factor that will decide the rate of events in Syria is the degree to which Turkey gets involved.

On Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyep Erdogan voiced his most serious criticism of the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy protests. "You can remain in power with tanks and cannons only up to a certain point," said Mr Erdogan, "the day will come when you'll also leave."

The Turkish leader's remarks are being seen as an indication that Turkey may soon create buffer-zones on its border with Syria, from where the anti-Assad forces will be able to operate under Turkish military protection.

Officially, Israel is keeping quiet on the Syrian situation. IDF Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz said during a visit to an army base on Sunday: "I regret to say that in Syria we are seeing how Assad is drinking the blood of his own people. We cannot be involved in any way but we are following matters closely."

Last updated: 12:57pm, November 24 2011