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Egypt’s turmoil leaves Israel silent and worried

Published: 04 February 2011

Unrest in Egypt could lead to Israel’s worst nightmare

JERUSALEM – For Israel, the popular uprising against the Mubarak regime raises the specter of its worst strategic nightmare: collapse of the peace treaty with Egypt, the cornerstone of its regional policy for the past three decades.

That is not the inevitable outcome of the unrest; a modified version of the Mubarak government could survive and retain the “cold peace” with Israel. But if, in a worst case scenario, democratic or Islamic forces were to come to power denouncing Israel and repudiating the peace deal, that could herald the resurrection of a major military threat on Israel’s southern border.

The largely American-equipped and American-trained Egyptian army — by far the most powerful military in the Arab world — numbers around 650,000 men, with 60 combat brigades, 3500 tanks, and 600 fighter planes. For Israel, the main strategic significance of the peace with Egypt is that it has been able to take the threat of full-scale war against its strongest foe out of the military equation. But a hostile regime change in Cairo could compel Israel to rethink its military strategy, restructure its combat forces, and, in general, build a bigger army, diverting billions of shekels to that end with major social and economic consequences.

A hostile government in Cairo could also mean that Egypt would be aiding and abetting the radical Hamas regime in neighboring Gaza, rather than, as at present, helping to contain it.

Worse: If there is a domino effect that also leads to an anti-Israel regime change in Jordan, with its relatively large Islamic political presence, Israel could find itself facing an augmented military threat on its eastern border, too. That could leave it even worse off than it was before 1977, facing a combined military challenge from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and the Palestinians — with the added menace of a fundamentalist Iran that seeks to acquire nuclear weapons.

The strategic importance of the peace with Egypt has come to the fore during a number of crises over the past decade. Without it, the second Palestinian intifada (2000-2005), the Second Lebanon War (2006), and the Gaza war (2008-2009) could easily have triggered wider regional hostilities. But in each case, in the teeth of region-wide popular sentiment against Israel, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak adamantly rejected calls to commit Egyptian soldiers to the fray. On the contrary, Mubarak was critical of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of Hamas in Gaza for provoking senseless killing, and he played a significant role in achieving postwar ceasefire arrangements. “Not everything Mubarak did was right,” President Shimon Peres declared Monday. “But he did one thing for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. He kept the peace in the Middle East.”

Because Mubarak has served as a bulwark against regional chaos and was for decades a central pillar of American strategy against the radical forces led by Iran, Israelis found it baffling that President Obama turned his back on the embattled Egyptian leader so quickly. Pundits argued that Obama’s stance sent a deeply disconcerting message to America’s moderate allies across the region, from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, that they, too, might be as peremptorily abandoned in time of need. That message, the pundits said, might drive those equally autocratic leaders elsewhere for support, even possibly toward America’s regional foe, Iran. Secondly, the pundits insisted that by distancing himself from Mubarak, Obama was encouraging the would-be revolutionary opposition in Egypt in a gamble that could prove counterproductive to American and Western interests. Clearly, the American president was hoping for democracy in Egypt and a concomitant increase in popular support for America across the region.

In his Cairo speech in June 2009, Obama offered the Muslim peoples of the Middle East a new beginning. Now, he seems to be using the Egyptian crisis to underscore that appeal to the Muslim masses. But Israeli pundits warn that this is most unlikely to work. They maintain that instead of democracy in Egypt, there could well be a two-stage revolutionary process — an initial quasi-democracy, overtaken within months by the emergence of an autocratic Islamic republic under the heel of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be similar to what happened when the United States supported pro-democracy forces against the Shah in Iran in the 1970s, only to see the emergence of the fundamentalist ayatollahs. Moreover, in the event of an eventual Muslim Brotherhood victory, the big regional winner would be fundamentalist Iran.

Israeli diplomats across the globe have been instructed to quietly make the case for the importance of stability in Egypt. Careful not to exacerbate an already delicate situation by saying anything that might be construed as support for one side or the other, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has merely reaffirmed Israel’s desire to preserve regional stability. But it is safe to assume that his government would be relieved to see power remaining in the hands of Egypt’s current ruling elite — say, through a peaceful handover to Mubarak’s recently appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman.

The Israeli hope is that Suleiman, the former head of Egypt’s intelligence services and a major player in everything related to Egyptian-Israeli ties, would be able to continue Egypt’s pro-Western alignment and its support for the peace deal with Israel, while allowing a greater degree of democracy in Egypt and pre-empting the rise of an Islamic republic. But it is unclear how much popular support he can muster, given his close ties down the years with Mubarak, who seemingly overnight has become the most hated man in Egypt.

However the events in Egypt play out, they will clearly have an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The very notion of a threat to the peace with Egypt will almost certainly further reduce the Netanyahu government’s readiness to take risks for peace. In a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu re-emphasized the importance he attaches to the security element in any peace package — “in case the peace unravels.” As for the Palestinians, the Egyptian protests could trigger Palestinian demonstrations pressing for statehood — without peace or mutual concessions.

As usual, events seem to be reinforcing both sides of the Israeli political divide in their core beliefs. The right is already saying that Israel should not make peace unless it can be assured of ironclad security arrangements, and the left maintains that if only Israel had already made peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, then popular unrest such as the protests in Egypt would not be potentially so earth-shattering.

Either way, the events in Egypt are not good news for those advocating Israeli-Arab peacemaking. They could push efforts to resolve the conflict back several decades.

JTA Wire Service


Israel missing historic opportunity to support Arab freedom


Let this be Obama’s JFK moment


Down with dictators: Mideast protests through Sharansky’s prism


Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways

They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to what was the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

News Analysis

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

A demonstrator with an anti-Gaddafi sign outside the Libya Embassy in Cairo Feb. 22 shows his solidarity for Libyans protesting their leader. Sierragoddes via Creative Commons

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya, said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise — if it comes — wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel — including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan, and North Africa — on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal — something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber-rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber-rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes somewhat friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind, or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

For more about the J Street conference, go to

JTA Wire Service


Unrest in Syria may mean dangers and opportunities

With unrest roiling Syria, it’s unclear whether further unrest will stoke conflict along the Israel-Syrian border, pictured here in November 2009. Hamad Alkamt/Flash90/JTA

JERUSALEM – With the turmoil rocking the Middle East now threatening the regime in Syria, Israeli faces potentially grave dangers and huge opportunities.

The dangers are clear: The emergence of a more radical regime in Syria could mean a stronger Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Iran could get direct access to its allies in Lebanon through a Syrian regime that’s even friendlier toward Tehran. Syria’s huge stockpiles of missiles and chemical weapons could fall into the wrong hands. The unrest on Israel’s doorstep could spread to the west bank and to Jordan. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s more radical successors could use a conflict with Israel to build domestic legitimacy.

News Analysis

Against all that, a huge opportunity is opening up for positive regional change if Syria’s president or a more moderate successor regime is spurred to turn to the West with a program of democratic reforms and a call for economic aid to make it work. That would mean a severe weakening of the Iranian axis and an opening for peacemaking with Israel.

Given the possibilities, the Israelis aren’t sure whether to hope for the fall of Assad or not.

Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States and one of Israel’s leading experts on Syria, says that if Assad falls, the big losers will be Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

So far, Iran has been one of the main beneficiaries of the regional turmoil, Rabinovich noted in a column in Israel’s daily Yediot Achronot. Iran’s rival in Egypt was toppled from power; Shiite allies have staged an uprising in Bahrain; the pressure on rival Saudi Arabia’s regime is growing — and it’s all deflecting world attention away from Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

But if a new Western-leaning regime in Damascus were to emerge, that would be a huge blow to Iran’s regional ambitions. To prevent that, Iran might press Assad to escalate tensions with Israel in an attempt to unify the Syrian people against a common enemy, Rabinovich and others have warned.

But Israeli government officials say it’s unlikely that the unrest in Syria will spill over into new cross-border hostilities.

“The probability of Assad heating up the northern border to divert attention from his domestic troubles is not high,” Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon told Israel Radio. He added that the turmoil in the Arab world presents not only dangers, but also opportunities; he did not elaborate.

Most Israeli Syria experts believe that Assad’s chances of retaining power are good.

Hebrew University’s Moshe Maoz, author of several books on Syria, said that although the Alawite minority community from which Assad hails numbers only about 13 percent of Syria’s population, it has firm control over the levers of state power, especially the armed forces.

“Like his father, Bashar Assad has carefully placed his own people everywhere,” Maoz told JTA. “And although there are Alawites who see themselves as Bashar’s enemies, they fear the moment he falls they could be subject to massacre by the Sunni majority.”

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is the most well-organized potential opposition force in Syria, Maoz says it does not have the wherewithal for a successful rebellion.

“They can preach rebellion in the mosques, but they don’t have the arms to carry it out,” he said. “There is no military force in Syria that could seriously challenge the army, over which Bashar has absolute control. And I don’t see Bashar giving in and stepping down without a fight. For him it is a battle for survival for the family, the tribe, the sect.”

There are other factors working in Assad’s favor.

For one thing, no clear opposition group or leader has emerged. For another, young people in Syria have been subject to years of pro-regime indoctrination, and Assad is not universally hated the way some of the other Arab autocrats are (or were). The Assads even created special Koran schools to make the Alawite faith more palatable to the Sunni majority.

This is why Assad’s carrot-and-stick policy actually could work, Maoz said. Assad is offering far-reaching reforms, such as canceling the 1963 emergency law and allowing the formation of political parties, while at the same time using the armed forces to keep the protesters at bay. So far, dozens have been killed.

Assad is unlikely to go to war with Israel because he knows it would be disastrous for Syria and for his regime, Maoz said. “Assad has his own military calculus. He is not under Iran’s thumb,” he added.

Indeed, Maoz believes the unrest could drive Assad toward the West to better meet the new demands of the Syrian people.

“If he remains in power, he might take a more pragmatic approach, looking for Western economic aid and for negotiations with Israel to get back the Golan, which is important to him for strategic and emotional reasons,” Maoz said.

Alon Liel, chairman of the Israel-Syria Peace Society, is also upbeat. Liel, who held informal peace talks with Syrian delegates between 2004 and 2006, also thinks Assad is likely to survive.

Apart from his control of the levers of state power, Liel noted, Assad has received strong support from key regional players such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as from the international community.

Unlike in the cases of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the United States has not exerted any pressure on Assad to leave. That makes all the difference, Liel says: If Assad survives, he might feel beholden to the West and see in it the answer to his domestic troubles.

“He will have to make significant reforms,” Liel said. “That is not only a domestic demand. It is a demand of the international community that will have saved him.”

In Liel’s view, in the most likely alternative scenario, Assad will be ousted by others in the close-knit leadership group, made a scapegoat for all Syria’s woes, and replaced by someone like his estranged brother-in-law Assef Shawqat, a hardliner who is closer to Iran.

JTA Wire Service

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