How Will Israel Respond?
As unrest continues to spread in the Arab world, most visibly in Egypt & Tunisia, but perhaps most dangerously (in the near and medium term) in Lebanon, there has been relatively little discussion of how these events might influence Israeli actions and policy in the region. While there has been some coverage of this aspect of the story – mostly in the form of the media reporting on the various ways in which Israeli officials are nervously following developments, for those who take a more holistic (not to mention, realistic) approach to looking at the region, it would seem fairly obvious that to leave Israel out of these discussions is short-sighted.
All of these events will undoubtedly have profound implications for Israel going forward. In the case of Egypt, as I have heard a few commentators mention on National Public Radio, if whatever form of government arises out of the present political melee is unfriendly toward Israel or even goes so far as to abandon the existing peace treaty, then Israel will have to shift attention and resources to its long southern border with that country. As it is, there are roads which go right along this border and even down through the Sinai from Israel into Egypt, and an unfriendly regime in Cairo would certainly require some serious thought on the part of Israel’s defense establishment, about the kind of security posture which would need to be maintained in this area.
Another problem is that if the Muslim Brotherhood or some other Islamist group were to come to power in Egypt, we could easily see a whole new (open) route for the transfer of weapons through, and perhaps even from, Egypt to Hamas. It should be noted that the Egyptian army could play a pivotal role in preventing this last scenario from occurring, especially if they can manage to maintain ties with and support from, the United States.
But even if the army were to step up, the current and potential role of the Muslim Brotherhood remains uncertain - In a piece posted on the Foreign Affairs website, Associate Professor Carrie Rosefsky Wickham at Emory University has addressed this subject, contending that the group has made many changes and overall become significantly more moderate since the days when it clashed with Nasser in the 1950’s, leading to a crackdown on the group by the Egyptian government. Although Professor Wickham presents a picture of the Brotherhood that does seem to offer a gentler picture of the group, writing in part that, “Over the last 30 years, Brotherhood leaders have become habituated to electoral competition and representation, developed new professional competencies and skills, and forged closer ties with Egyptian activists, researchers, journalists, and politicians outside the Islamist camp,” I am still quite skeptical when it comes to seeing the current formation of the group as a somehow kinder and gentler version of its founding iteration.
Even Professor Wickham acknowledges that we are still dealing with a series of unknowns when it comes to whether or how this group will be integrated into any future Egyptian political structure, noting toward the end of her piece that “It remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood as an organization -- not only individual members -- will accept a constitution that does not at least refer to sharia; respect the rights of all Egyptians to express their ideas and form parties; clarify its ambiguous positions on the rights of women and non-Muslims; develop concrete programs to address the nation's toughest social and economic problems; and apply the same pragmatism it has shown in the domestic arena to issues of foreign policy, including relations with Israel and the West.” I think this is a fair and candid assessment of some of the various unknowns, but it is still hard in my own mind, I will admit, to separate the Anti-Israel and Anti-Semitic rhetoric which has been at the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood since its founding. Not to mention the violence they have inspired throughout the region, from the group. Even if they have softened somewhat, it is hard to imagine, from a practical perspective, Israeli representatives and members of the Muslim Brotherhood sitting down together to discuss maintaining peaceful relations any time soon.
There is no question that historic events are taking place in the Middle East and North Africa, nor, would I suggest, is there any question that the brutality of the Mubarak regime has inspired genuine and understandable grievances on the part of the Egyptian people. There are important stories coming out of these events, and the world should indeed be paying close attention. But it seems that events in Egypt have eclipsed all other Middle East news, including the troubling rise of Hezbollah to power in Lebanon, which was able to strong-arm its way into power through a combination of coercion and fear. All of this rapid change and the unqualified zeal with which cable news outlets have rushed to cover what’s taking place in the streets of Cairo, Suez and Alexandria, have left other important stories uncovered, including the expected findings of the investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, whose son was, until recently, the head of Lebanon’s badly-fractured central government. If Israel has to bolster its security presence on both its southern and northern fronts, this will certainly not bode well for the resumption of productive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the near term. If nothing else it will redirect attention, resources and political will away from peace talks and toward the more pressing matters of protecting the south from instability and terrorist attacks and the north from Hezbollah provocations.
The northern border is likely to remain a special area of concern, above and beyond Egypt, at least for the moment, because a working relationship exists between the IDF and the Egyptian army, which means that Israel probably doesn’t have to worry about a surprise attack coming out of the Sinai in the immediate future. What Israel does have to worry about, I would argue, is another incident along the border with Lebanon. The Hezbollah regime may have gained the power they coveted (along with a certain measure of political legitimacy) in what was effectively a coup, but they remain an ardent enemy of Israel and with the resources of the state at their disposal (no matter how limited such resources may actually be) there seems a good chance that they might try to provoke another conflict, especially if they think that the US is too distracted by events in Egypt to intervene with real diplomatic force in any new Hezbollah/Lebanon-Israel conflict.
Anyone who follows the events and history of the Middle East knows that it has rarely been a stable place – events, personalities, ideological movements and world events often contribute to a political and military landscape that is unpredictable, shifting and mercurial. That being said, Israel finds itself in a very tough spot at the moment – it has invested a lot in its relationship with Egypt and with President Mubarak, but at the same time if it truly wants to be seen as a beacon of democracy and liberty in what is an otherwise rather bleak regional picture, it needs to show some kind of support for the reformers. All the while Israel needs to keep a keen eye on all of its borders, as it seems to be finding itself once again (with the exception of Jordan) surrounded by uncertainty at best and at worst, the specter of renewed conflict with a host of potentially bellicose Islamist regimes.
-Daniel E. Levenson
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
Copyright Daniel E. Levenson/The New Vilna Review 2011. This piece orginially appeared on the New Vilna Review website.