U.S. Secretary of defence Robert Gates met with his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Barak, Thursday.There was no shortage of issues for the defence officials to discuss amid what appears to be an impending Israeli military operation in Gaza; gradually building unrest in Syria; and the fear of an Iranian destabilization campaign spreading from the Persian Gulf to the Levant.
Any of these threats developing in isolation would be relatively manageable from the Israeli point of view, but when taken together, they remind Israel that the past 32 years of relative quietude in Israel’s Arab backyard is anything but the norm.
Israel is a small country, demographically outnumbered by its neighbours and thus unable to field an army large enough to sustain long, high-intensity conflicts on multiple fronts. Israeli national security therefore revolves around a core, strategic need to sufficiently neutralize and divide its Arab neighbours so that a 1948, 1967 and 1973 scenario can be avoided at all costs. After 1978, Israel had not resolved, but had greatly alleviated its existential crisis.
A peace agreement with Egypt, ensured by a Sinai desert buffer, largely secured the Negev and the southern coastal approaches to Tel Aviv. The formalization in 1994 of a peace pact with Jordan secured Israel’s longest border along the Jordan River. Though Syria remained a threat, by itself it could not seriously threaten Israel and was more concerned with affirming its influence in Lebanon anyway. Conflicts remain with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah in Lebanon along the northern front, but these do not constitute a threat to Israeli survival.
The natural Israeli condition is one of unease, but the past three decades were arguably the most secure in modern Israeli history. That sense of security is now being threatened on multiple fronts.
To its west, Israel risks being drawn into another military campaign in the Gaza Strip. A steady rise in rocket attacks penetrating deep into the Israeli interior over the past week is not something the Israeli leadership can ignore, especially when there exists heavy suspicion that the rocket attacks are being conducted in coordination with other acts of violence against Israeli targets: the murder of five members of an Israeli family in a West Bank settlement less than two weeks ago, and the Wednesday bombing at a bus station in downtown Jerusalem. Further military action will likely be taken, with the full knowledge that it will invite widespread condemnation from much of the international community, especially the Muslim world.
The last time Israel defence Forces went to war with Palestinian militants, in late 2008/early 2009, the threat to Israel was largely confined to the Gaza Strip, and while Operation Cast Lead certainly was not well received in the Arab world, it never threatened to cause a fundamental rupture in the system of alliances with Arab states that has provided Israel with its overall sense of security for the past three decades. This time, a military confrontation in Gaza would have the potential to jeopardize Israel’s vital alliance with Egypt.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and others are watching Egypt’s military manage a shaky political transition next door. The military men running the government in Cairo are the same men who think that maintaining the peace with Israel and keeping groups like Hamas contained is a smart policy, and one that should be continued in the post-Mubarak era. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, part of an Islamist movement that gave rise to Hamas, may have different ideas about the treaty; it has even indicated as much during the political protests in Egypt. An Israeli military campaign in Gaza under the current conditions would be fodder for the Muslim Brotherhood to rally the Egyptian electorate (both its supporters and people who may otherwise vote for a secular party) and potentially undermine the credibility of the military-led regime. With enough pressure, the Islamists in Egypt and Gaza could shift Cairo’s strategic posture toward Israel. This scenario is not an assured outcome, but it is likely to be on the minds of those orchestrating the current offensive against Israel from the Palestinian territories.
To the north, in Syria, the minority Alawite-Baathist regime is struggling to clamp down on protests in the southwest city of Deraa near the Jordanian border. As Syrian security forces fired on protesters who had gathered in and around the city’s main mosque, Syrian President Bashar al Assad, like many of his beleaguered Arab counterparts, made promises to order a ban on the use of live rounds against demonstrators, consider ending a 48-year state of emergency, open the political system, lift media restrictions and raise living standards – all promises that were promptly rejected by the country’s developing opposition. The protests in Syria have not reached critical mass due to the relative effectiveness of Syrian security forces in snuffing out demonstrations in the key cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.
Moreover, it remains to be seen if the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which led a violent uprising beginning in 1976 aiming to restore power to the Sunni majority, will overcome its fears and join the demonstrations in full force. The 1982 Hama crackdown, in which some 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed, forced what was left of the Muslim Brotherhood underground and is still fresh in the minds of many.
Though Israel is not particularly keen on the al Assad regime, the virtue of the al Assads, from the Israeli point of view, is their predictability. A Syria more concerned with wealth and exerting influence in Lebanon than provoking military engagements to its south, is far more preferable than the fear of what may follow. Like in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Syria remains the single largest and most organised opposition in the country, even though it has been severely weakened since the massacre at Hama.
To the east, Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy has a far better handle on its political opposition (the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Jordan is often referred to as the “loyal opposition” by many observers in the region,) but protests continue to simmer there and the Hashemite dynasty remains in fear of being overrun by the country’s Palestinian majority. Israeli military action in Gaza could also be used by the Jordanian MB to galvanize protesters already prepared to take to the streets.
Completing the picture is Iran. The wave of protests lapping at Arab regimes across the region has created an historic opportunity for Iran to destabilize its rivals and threaten both Israeli and U.S. national security in one fell swoop. Iranian influence has its limits, but a groundswell of Shiite discontent in eastern Arabia along with an Israeli war on Palestinians that highlights the duplicity of Arab foreign policy toward Israel, provides Iran with the leverage it has been seeking to reshape the political landscape. Remaining quiet thus far is Iran’s primary militant proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. As Israel mobilizes its forces in preparation for another round of fighting with Palestinian militants, it cannot discount the possibility that Hezbollah and its patrons in Iran are biding their time to open a second front to threaten Israel’s northern frontier. It has been some time since a crisis of this magnitude has built on Israel’s borders, but this is not a country unaccustomed to worst case scenarios.
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