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Egypt’s Islamists play to anti-Israel sentiment

– A fiery tirade against Jews by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leader highlights one of the foremost diplomatic challenges facing the country’s new Islamist President Mohammed Morsi as he balances popular sentiment with the need for security relations with Israel.

The Brotherhood’s supreme leader, Mohammed Badie, called on Muslims worldwide last week to defend Jerusalem, saying “Zionists only know the way of force.” He said that Jews were spreading “corruption,” had slaughtered Muslims and desecrated holy sites.

Badie’s condemnation went well beyond the harsh criticism of Israel and its policies that is common in Egypt, opening even greater friction between the country’s most powerful political group and its Jewish neighbor. And it will likely put more pressure on Morsi, who ran for president as a Brotherhood candidate, to take a more assertive role than his predecessor had in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said the Brotherhood’s statement was aimed at deflecting attention from Morsi’s troubles in his first 100 days in office, such as fuel shortages and mounting piles of garbage on the streets.

“Every time there is domestic tension in the new Egypt, Israel and the Jews will be targeted, and every time the Egyptian street is tense or protests, the Muslim Brotherhood will bring the anti-Semitic genie out of the bottle,” he said Saturday.

Israel has increasingly become worried about the ascendance of the formerly repressed Brotherhood to power after last year’s ouster of Hosni Mubarak, who was often pictured warmly greeting Israeli officials in Cairo.

The two nations share security concerns about their volatile border area, and both control entry and exit points for the Palestinian Gaza Strip. Islamic militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have carried out attacks this past year against security forces from both countries.

Morsi has avoided speaking of Israel in public, only making pledges to respect Egypt’s international agreements and the peace accord. The treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab country, has been a foundation for regional stability for more than three decades.

“It is time for the Muslim ... to unite for the sake of Jerusalem and Palestine after the Jews have increased the corruption in the world, and shed the blood of (Muslims),” Badie said. The comments were denounced as hate speech by organizations that track anti-Semitism.

Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon called on the United States and the European Union to take action, adding that such “incitement and anti-Semitism in Egypt” must stop before Washington sends more financial aid to Cairo.

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