WASHINGTON, Feb 9 (Reuters) - Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak
began meetings in Washington on Wednesday as the two allies weighed the impact of Egypt's political crisis on stability in the Middle East.
Barak was due to meet Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Thomas Donilon, President Barack Obama's national security adviser, the Israeli Embassy said in a statement.
Barak's visit is expected to focus on Egypt, where unprecedented protests against the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak have raised fears the unrest may lead to Islamist radicalization that could threaten Cairo's 1979 peace agreement with Israel
and its role in Middle East peace efforts.
The demonstrations have thrown a question mark over the revival of stalled talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
US calls for an orderly transition in Egypt have been based in part on the desire to ensure any successor government abides by existing international agreements. US aid to Egypt's powerful military -- about $1.3 billion last year -- is seen as one critical stabilizing factor.
US Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday set out steps Cairo must take to end the crisis, bluntly telling the government to stop harassing protesters and immediately repeal an emergency law allowing detention without charge.
The demands appeared aimed at raising pressure on Mubarak's handpicked vice president, Omar Suleiman, a former intelligence chief who is negotiating with opposition figures including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, long Mubarak's sworn foe.
Mubarak said he will not run in September elections and his government promised other reforms but thousands of Egyptians demanding his immediate ouster have not been mollified and protests swelled as the unrest entered its third week.
HOW REAL A CHANGE?
The Obama administration's cautious approach has led to criticism from Egyptian opposition leaders and U.S. political analysts that Washington risks rubber-stamping a process that will do little to change a repressive order under Mubarak.
Mr. Obama needs to regain his voice and press Mr. Suleiman to either begin a serious process of reform or get out of the way, The New York Times said in an editorial on Wednesday.
Egypt's strategic importance to the United States includes its role as guardian of the Suez Canal, an important gateway for oil imports to the West, as well as its ability to serve as a counterweight in the region to Iran.
But Israel -- one of the biggest recipients of overseas US aid -- is also a factor. Israeli officials have said the turmoil rocking the Arab world's political heavyweight may require the Jewish state to bolster its might while also pressing ahead with peace efforts with the Palestinians.
The United States succeeded in relaunching direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in September, only to see them grind to a halt three weeks later when Israel's partial moratorium on building settlements in the West Bank expired.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
refuses to return to talks until Israel freezes construction on land it captured in a 1967 war.
The Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators -- the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- on Saturday called on Israel and the Palestinians to relaunch talks quickly, saying the Egyptian crisis underscored the growing security risks in the region. (Editing by John O'Callaghan and Doina Chiacu)