Associated Press/Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis

Neighborhood watch

Israel | Israel eyes the perils of surrounding revolutions

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

Posters and effigies of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak scattered in Cairo's Tahrir Square included a telling symbol linked to Mubarak: the Jewish Star of David. Some factions seeking power in Egypt's new era aren't supportive of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which Mubarak more than any other Arab leader maintained for 30 years.

In the uncertainty of dramatic changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, what's certain is that Israel will have fewer friends and perhaps more hostile neighbors. The coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is eyeing the tenuous transitions and protests, particularly in the border states of Egypt and Jordan-the only two countries in the region that have a formal peace treaty with Israel-and weighing the wider impact of social upheaval.

"A weaker Egypt in the Middle East-and Egypt will be a less-active player in Middle East politics in the next months if not years-leaves a certain vacuum in which Iran can play a more active role, and that is not beneficial," said Meir Litvak, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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Litvak said he fears that Iran's regime will not only increase repression of its people but will advance its nuclear capabilities while the world is looking elsewhere. And as long as Iran remains stable in a sea of chaos, the continuing crisis will tend to help Iran maintain high prices for its own oil.

Netanyahu highlights what's seen in Israel as a growing Iranian threat. "If the international community is applying special pressure on Libya and warning its leader and soldiers against violating civil rights, the same warning must be aimed at Iran's leaders and their henchmen," he said.

Tangible fallout from regional unrest visited Israel in February with sabotage of an oil pipeline in northern Sinai that halted the country's supply of natural gas. More than 40 percent of Israel's natural gas is imported from Egypt, and some suggest political motivations were behind broken promises that disrupted the flow for weeks.

The Sinai Desert, a demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries, may require a greater Israeli military presence should future powers in Egypt decide to relax security cooperation. If a new Egyptian government relaxes its border with Gaza, as members of the Muslim Brotherhood have proposed, it too will prompt stepped-up military presence from Israel. A March 23 bus bombing in central Jerusalem-the first such attack in the city in over five years-also raises fear of increased hostilities.

In Jordan protests have been mild, demanding political and economic reforms, not the overthrow of King Abdullah II, who is largely popular for his progressive leadership. But reforms and increased rights for Palestinians-who comprise an estimated 50 percent of Jordan's population-could lead to a power grab by those less inclined to honor Jordan's longstanding peace with Israel.

Israel's northern border has been mostly quiet for five years, but regional power shifts may jeopardize a ceasefire with Syria and reignite tensions with Hezbollah. When two Iranian warships passed through the Suez Canal in February, they docked in Syria and made a port call in Saudi Arabia. Both were unprecedented moves on the part of the Iranians-marking the first time Iranian warships have ventured into the Mediterranean since the Greco-Persian Wars that began in 499 B.C., according to Hillel Fradkin, director of the Hudson Institute's Center on Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World: "That was part of the reason for sending the ships through the canal; just to show they can do that now. In the past, Mubarak would have stopped them."

The Iranians are likely to continue provocations: On March 16 Israeli Defense Forces boarded a ship containing 50 tons of military equipment, including missiles, launchers, shells, and bullets. It was headed for Gaza and was believed to have come from Iran, though Iranian authorities denied the connection. And Turkish authorities seized an Iran Air cargo plane the same day, allegedly carrying weapons bound for Syria.

Israel is powerful in its own right, both economically and militarily, but what it lacks, said Fradkin, is political leverage to influence any of the firestorms sweeping across the Near East. More isolated than ever before, Israel has lost European support and has seen U.S. support erode under the Obama administration. The French in particular want to seize the revolution momentum to press for a Palestinian state.

"France wishes a new era beyond structures of the past based on respect and dignity and no further rejection of 'the other,'" said French Prime Minister François Fillon last week. "This also applies to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict . . . a peace process should be launched again without delay, and 2011 should be the year when a Palestinian state should be set up living next to Israel in safe and recognized borders."


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