The explosion that ripped through a natural-gas pipeline in the northern Sinai Desert on Saturday, Feb. 5, did more than cut off the flow of Egyptian fuel to Israel and Jordan. It also deepened Israeli fears about the changes under way in a powerful neighbor rendered at least neutral over the past 30 years by a peace treaty that might not survive the change in government.
The massive fireball, at a monitoring station outside the Egyptian city of el-Arish, could be seen from rooftops in the Gaza Strip, 45 miles (72 km) to the east. Though initial reports blamed a leak, Israeli intelligence judged it sabotage. Local press reports mentioned a detonation device placed inside a terminal.
Suspects include members of the peninsula's Bedouin tribes, traditional nomads who are unhappy with Egypt's central government and who are alleged to have expressed their discontent by trying to sabotage the pipeline. But the dreaded working assumption places the blame on Islamist militants, rejectionists who control Gaza and who Israel worries will take power in Cairo if President Hosni Mubarak leaves a vacuum in his wake.
Word that the Muslim Brotherhood joined negotiations over the transition on Sunday, Feb. 6, brought little comfort to the Jewish state. Though by most accounts it enjoys the support of only perhaps a third of Egyptians, the Brotherhood, which preaches both political Islam and nonviolence, was by far the most organized political opposition party under Mubarak's regime. The young people who have led the massive demonstrations across Egypt appear to be organized only in their desire to see change.
"The worst-case scenario is that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over," says former Israeli military chief Shaul Mofaz, now chair of the Knesset committee on foreign affairs and defense. "And they're against a peace process with Israel."
At stake for Israel: the 1979 peace treaty with a country it used to war against regularly, and a government that under Mubarak proved itself an ally against Israel's primary enemies Iran and its militant clients Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Still, in his most extensive remarks on the unrest, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strove to frame the crisis in positive terms.
"It is obvious that an Egypt that fully embraces the 21st century and that adopts these reforms would be a source of great hope for the entire world, the region and for us," Netanyahu told the Knesset. "If we have learned anything from modern history, it is that the stronger the foundations of democracy, the stronger the foundations of peace."
Over the weekend, however, the concern was energy. Egypt supplies Israel with some 40% of its natural gas, which Israel now uses to generate electricity, replacing dirtier coal and diesel. The two countries are barely three years into a 15-year contract for 1.7 billion cubic meters of Egyptian gas a year, provided via an undersea pipeline that branches off the line shattered by the blast. Officials warned that the connection may be closed as long as a week while the pipes cool.
Meanwhile, Israelis are bracing for hikes in their electrical bills and raising the volume on calls to exploit newly discovered offshore gas fields within Israel's territorial waters. The biggest and newest is called Leviathan; its 16 million cubic meters border and possibly edge into territorial waters claimed by Lebanon. Another field, called Tamar, is half the size of Leviathan but deemed closer to producing.
"We have to do everything to improve Israel's energy security," Uzi Landau, the Minister of Infrastructure, told Israel Radio. "It is Israel's obligation to remove every obstacle to developing Tamar as soon as possible."
Officials say the new field could be ready in 2013. Israel's only currently producing field, off the port city of Ashdod, is expected to be exhausted in 2014. Unless, that is, Egypt decides it is willing to cut off both the gas and the money Israel pays for it more than $2 billion a year, according to published reports. In that event, the Ashdod field would be called upon to make up the difference and could exhaust itself as early as next year.
"There is enough gas in that deposit to last Israel for a year and a half, provided there is also Egyptian gas," a spokesperson for the field's owner told the daily newspaper Ma'ariv. "If there isn't any Egyptian gas, we've got a problem."