Egypt's ultraconservatives support Israel treaty

December 21, 2011 - 4:16 PM
Mideast Egypt Election

A veiled Egyptian woman casts her vote at a polling center in Giza, Egypt Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. Voting in election runoffs for Egypt's first parliament since Hosni Mubarak's ouster resumed on Wednesday without the long lines outside polling centers seen in previous rounds of the staggered vote.(AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

CAIRO (AP) — The spokesman of Egypt's ultraconservative Islamist party told Israeli Army Radio in unprecedented remarks broadcast Wednesday that the group is not opposed to the country's historic peace treaty with Israel.

Yousseri Hamad's interview with the Israeli broadcaster is unusual for followers of the Salafi Islamic trend, who typically shun Israel for its policies toward Palestinians and its annexation of east Jerusalem, home to Islam's third-holiest site.

The interview countered Israeli fears that Islamist parties would seek to cut ties with Israel.

In his remarks to the Israeli station, Hamad said the Salafi Nour Party is committed to agreements signed by previous Egyptian governments, including the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

"We are not opposed to the agreement, and we are saying that Egypt is committed to the agreements that previous Egyptian government have signed," he said, noting that if Egyptians want changes on the treaty, "the place for that is the negotiation table."

In response to the interview, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the comments were worth considering.

"This is certainly food for thought and we will of course keep observing very attentively developments in Egypt," he said.

Many Israelis are concerned that Islamist parties are looking to cancel the peace treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab nation. The agreement is a pillar of security for both countries. For Israel, it has allowed diversion of military resources to other fronts. Egypt has benefited from billions of dollars in U.S. military aid.

Salafi Muslims follow a strict interpretation of Islam similar to that practiced in Saudi Arabia. The Salafi Nour Party in Egypt has so far won a quarter of the seats in Egypt's parliamentary elections, placing it second only to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

After the interview aired, Hamad told The Associated Press that he did not know he was talking to Israeli Army Radio, and he was told only it was for an Israeli broadcaster. He claimed that had he known, he would not have agreed to the Army Radio interview because "they occupy our Palestinian brothers."

He also said that his party "without doubt" supports changes to the agreement, including raising troop levels in the Sinai Peninsula, which borders Israel. He also said that there need to be guarantees for Palestinians.

"We call for full Sinai rights for Egypt and for our brothers in Palestine and occupied lands, and we see this as directly related to the agreement," he told the AP.

Israel withdrew from Sinai under the 1979 peace treaty.

The peace agreement defines that area of Sinai along Israel's border as a demilitarized zone, allowing only for Egyptian border guards, not troops. However, Israel has accepted temporary entry of several thousand Egyptian troops into Sinai to counter a surge of extremist Islamic activity there, including some violence, since the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February.

Relations between Israel and Egypt, soured after one of the incidents, when Israeli forces killed six Egyptian soldiers while pursuing Palestinian militants who killed eight Israelis September. Egyptian protesters then tore down a security wall around the building housing the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, storming it and trashing one of its offices.

Despite the tense relations, Hamad said his party had no objections to Israeli tourists.

"There is no doubt, any tourist who wants to come to Egypt is welcome," he told the Israeli station.

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Aron Heller contributed from Jerusalem.