Watching from the sidelines yet feeling much involved, Israel is preparing for the worst in Egypt, concerned about the fate of the 1979 peace treaty that reshaped the strategic balance of the Middle East.
As Egypt copes with street protests in the run-up to parliamentary elections, Israel fears a strengthening of Islamists at the expense of the military could doom the deal that removed Israel's biggest neighbor from its list of enemies, giving the Jewish state far more room to maneuver on other fronts.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set the tone, telling lawmakers Wednesday that "the chances are that an Islamist wave will wash the Arab states, an anti-Western wave, an anti-liberal wave."
In the first official assessment of the latest unrest in Egypt, Israeli Cabinet Minister Matan Vilnai said the result in the all-important case of Egypt could be a "grave erosion" in the peace treaty, suggesting the deal could collapse altogether .
Israel's main fear is the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is poised to make major gains in elections set to begin next week. The group has been cool to Egypt's peace with Israel and has close ties with the ruling Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip.
"The picture is quite clear. We've been saying it for months. Apparently what we call the Muslim Brotherhood ... will ultimately be the majority in all the (Egyptian) institutions," Vilnai, a retired general who is now the minister for civil defense, told Israel's Army Radio station.
He said he did not expect the Brotherhood to try to annul the peace deal immediately, since Egypt's post-revolution government will be preoccupied with domestic issues.
"But once the regime stabilizes, as we expect it to do, we expect that there will be a grave erosion of this agreement. And we have to prepare for such a situation," Vilnai said. "We are prepared for every scenario," he added.
The Islamists' ultimate agenda is not entirely certain, and the Islamist bloc is not monolithic, containing both radicals and pragmatists.
Brotherhood leaders have said they do not seek to cancel the peace accord with Israel. Like some liberal and secular factions, they do say they want amendments in the deal, particularly to change provisions that bar the Egyptian military from deploying in the Sinai Peninsula, near the border with Israel. Many in Egypt see that provision as a blow to national pride and as fueling chaos in the desert territory.
On this Israel may prove amenable. It expects Egypt to secure the area and prevent militant activity, a demand at odds with the peace treaty's troop limits. Israel has already agreed in recent months to relax the limit to boost security.
Israel's persistent longer-term fear stems from a fundamental distrust of Islamic fundamentalists _ a suspicion that even if they start off seeming benign, moderate, and limited in their ambitions, the ultimate result of an Islamic surge in any important country in the region would be disastrous for Arab-Israeli coexistence.
The centerpiece of coexistence is the treaty signed by Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat under the watchful eye of U.S. President Jimmy Carter 32 years ago.
Israel's first peace treaty with an Arab nation, it has kept a once-volatile border quiet for more than three decades. And it allowed the Jewish state to divert resources to deal with Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and Hezbollah guerrillas across Israel's northern border in Lebanon.
The deal also yielded dividends for Egypt _ ending brutal wars with Israel, yielding acceptance in the West and bringing in $1 billion a year in U.S. aid.
In an irony of history, since Egypt's army was once Israel's bitterest foe, Israelis were reassured by the military's taking of the reins after the fall of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, who carefully preserved the treaty. Israel views the generals as a bulwark of support for the peace accord.
Israeli officials have been careful not to take sides in the upcoming election, wary of being seen as intervening in Egypt's internal affairs.
But Egypt-watching has become something of a national obsession.
A senior Israeli official involved in policy toward Egypt said that there is a sense in some circles that Egypt, given its dire economic situation, will not cancel the peace deal because it simply cannot afford to forego its benefits. "Even the Brotherhood is pragmatic" and the army will continue to play some sort of role because of its stabilizing influence, the official said.
Others argue the opposite point.
Eli Shaked, a former ambassador to Egypt, said that at some eventual stage when "the radical elements in Egypt are sitting strong in government, they will remove the 'abomination' as they see it of the Israeli flag in central Cairo ... they will be willing to pay the economic price of (rupturing) relations with Israel and the United States to promote their ideological, political, Islamist agenda _ as occurs in other places like Iran."