The events hitting the Arab world, especially Egypt, are tantamount to an earthquake which has stricken Israel. It opened the door for the disruption of the balance of power in the region. It is also a setback for the Israeli-Arab peace treaties, not to mention the existential threat Israel will be facing on the long run.
Israel will try to abort the revolutionary transformation in Egypt or thwart it, so that it becomes a mere “reform movement.” This movement will eventually establish a democratic rule while avoiding any external concerns or burdens. Israel will try to manage relations with the new regime to prevent the outburst of any conflict which it does not want now.
On the strategic level, Israel will fully prepare itself for a renewed conflict with Egypt that will perceive Israel as a strategic enemy. A new map of regional alliances and conflicts will soon crystallize, thus demanding a new Israeli security theory.
Preliminary Impact of the Arab Uprisings
Israel and the Revolution: Early Reactions
Difficult Options for Israel
Preliminary Impact of the Arab Uprisings
A pillar of the Israeli security theory collapsed when Mubarak’s regime collapsed. For Israel has depended mainly on the weakness or complicity of some Arab parties to ensure the most part of its security. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed by Anwar al-Sadat has paved the way for developing this Arab role in the provision of Israeli security. This treaty, in addition to Mubarak’s regime commitments and agreements with Israel since late 1981, have provided Israel with two strategic benefits; the first is the protection of the Israeli southern front through clear Egyptian commitments; the second is distorting the notion of resistance in the strategic Arab mind and promoting instead normalization and peace with Israel. Consequently, Israel was able to build its military and strategic capacities, establish international and regional alliances in addition to expanding the scope of conflict to include the forces supportive of the Arab steadfastness, such as Iran.
Israel has to establish now a new security theory which is based on a careful reading of the new Arab political, strategic and cultural reality. It has also to consider rebuilding the southern front with the necessary troops, capacities and expenditures. On the other hand, Israel has to face the transformations taking place in some Arab countries and which might be of revolutionary nature. It has to realize that these transformations might restore confidence in the resistance choice and renew commitment to the Palestinian issue as a central Arab cause thus allowing the re-establishment of a new Arab regime which is more popular and progressive and consistent with the new Arab revolutionary trend.
Israel and the Revolution: Early Reactions
The eruption of the Egyptian uprising triggered a sense of danger among the Israelis. They feared a “new Iran” if the Muslim Brotherhood were to control the revolution and then assume rule in Egypt, and they feared the fate of the peace treaty. Thus, they were concerned about the fate of Mubarak’s regime and the ramifications of its collapse.
At first, Israel was concerned about the rebels’ affiliations and stances, specifically in Egypt, and where the dust of these revolutions will settle. It wondered whether they’ll stay merely an Arab revolution or would they affect other regional forces? Not only did Israel express its annoyance, it also pressured the US and EU to support Mubarak and his regime. It tried to scare the US and Europe with the fact that the fall of Mubarak’s regime would better serve the interests of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, after the collapse of Mubarak’s regime, the domino effect of the revolution reached Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya and it adopted the motto of the Egyptian revolution (The people want to bring down the regime) with some tactical changes in Jordan and some gulf countries (The people want to reform the regime). These developments increased Israel’s concerns about the regional balance of power and the emergence of new regional alignments, especially that the collapsing regimes are pro-Western that have direct or indirect relations with Israel.
Netanyahu failed to hide the contradictions in Israeli political stances despite his attempts to express optimism as people defy the power of dictators. Directly after expressing this opinion, Netanyahu asked whether “what we’ll want is what we’ll get.” To dispel any ambiguity, he asserted that Iran is trying to take advantage of the new situation, and it should be prevented from doing so. Netanyahu added that the regimes “are preoccupied with Iran,” and it is “an unusual experience for Israel not to be at the centre of a storm in the Middle East.” He also expressed his disappointment with the “West’s attitude to Iran.” On the other hand, Defense Minister Ehud Barak attested that the changes in the Arab world are a historic shock stressing that the Middle East is a tough neighborhood where there is no place for the weak.
Barak sought to soothe Israeli concerns by betting on two important factors; the power and influence of the Egyptian army on one hand and Egypt’s economic dependence on the West on the other. He believes that these are important to control the performance of the new Egyptian regime vis-à-vis Israel and maintain a “balanced” Egyptian stance.
On another level, the Israeli media showed a less restrained reaction just like that shown by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman who has failed to hide his fear of Iran’s decision to send two naval vessels through Suez Canal. He described the Iranian move as a “provocation.” The Israeli media voiced concerns over Egypt’s decision to allow the passage of the Iranian vessels and the possible motives of such a decision. In this context, the Israeli analyst Aluf Benn wrote in Haaretz stressing the implications of the Iranian step. He reminded when a year and a half ago, an Israel Navy submarine crossed the Suez Canal on its way from Haifa to the Red Sea, where it conducted an exercise, and back. He considered that the unusual voyage reflected then the growing strategic cooperation between Israel and Egypt, which aimed a menacing message at Iran. On the other hand, when Egypt allowed Iranian warships to cross the canal, on their way to Syrian ports, he considered the canal was, once more, being used to deliver a message of deterrence – but this time the direction is reversed. This move symbolized the change to the regional balance of power following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Egypt is signaling that it is no longer committed to its strategic alliance with Israel against Iran, and that Cairo is now willing to do business with Tehran. This is precisely what Turkey has done in recent years under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
These concerns turned into fears and then into realities after the declarations of the new Egyptian Foreign Minister Dr. Nabil al-‘Arabi regarding relations with Iran and his assertion that Iran is not an enemy. These declarations were followed by his meeting with Iran’s Interests Section head in Cairo, Mojtaba Amani, and receiving a letter from his Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi welcoming the development of relations between the two countries and calling him to visit Tehran in order to enhance the relations between the two countries.
These facts induced Defense Minister Ehud Barak to depict the Arab revolutionary as a “historic earthquake” in the Middle East as well as a diplomatic “tsunami” that could culminate in September, when Palestinian leaders have vowed to seek recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations. Such a move would be “followed by a wide effort aimed at delegitimization of Israel.”
The perceptions of the war minister show that the situation is really dangerous for Israel. This perception was carefully read by Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, where he said that for the West the agenda was about democracy; for Israel, it was peace, i.e., the issue was inextricably bound up with the daily existence of its population. In Israel, the sudden overthrow of a leader who kept peace with Israel, sometimes under difficult conditions, for 30 years, appeared as threatening the strategic peace agreement.. Yet nobody is able to give a satisfactory answer about the outcome.
This uncertainty triggered confused Israeli reactions especially in the security apparatus, even before the collapse of Mubarak’s regime. The ministry of defense demanded additional budgets of about $ 200 million to the military. This step is to be followed by more budget allocations to face security and military developments.
On the other hand, Israeli strategists made some studies to understand the reality of the situation. On 6/2/2011, the convened Herzliya Conference declared that, according to the scientific indicators, there is a decline in “national resilience.” These indicators reflect the ability of individuals and society to face challenges and pressure while showing resilience and flexibility in terms of perceptions and basic beliefs, which build the social-political fabric of any society.
According to Professor Gabriel Ben Dor, a specialist in this domain, the new survey for measuring national resilience revealed that the index of patriotism and the readiness to fight for Israel has decreased to the lowest levels. He also stressed that the increased social and economic problems, corruption and leadership crisis have contributed to the situation.
The important result which might summarize the whole situation was expressed by the Dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya, Alex Mintz, who said that “time is now playing against Israel” which used to count on weaknesses of Arabs. On the other hand, the recommendation for an urgent action to save the situation was expressed by Danny Rothschild, chairman of the Herzliya Conference Series, where he called Israel to anticipate future developments in the region and make conclusive decision on achieving a peace agreement with the Palestinians before it is too late.
The simultaneous and consequent developments threatening Israel include the possible repercussions of the Arab revolutionary transformations, the potential end of Israel’s alliance with the “moderate Arab camp” which is likely to collapse, and the “decline of the Israeli national resilience” together with the decline of Israel’s image as a model for democracy and progress. However, the dangers of these developments increased as Israel has become a burden on the US and as the support for a unilateral declaration of independence by the Palestinians in the next UNGA session by President Obama is growing. According to Yedioth Ahronoth, PM Netanyahu has received a warning of an escalating crisis between the Israeli government and the American administration where the American President is adamant about supporting the choice of declaring the Palestinian State. According to the Israeli daily, the President’s position is influenced by the Arab uprisings which intensified his anger at the Israeli policy. Even Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, could not amend the relations between Netanyahu and Obama during his meeting with the latter in the White House.
These developments, according to Amos Gilad, Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Israel Ministry of Defense, are commensurate with a declaration of war against Israel’s existence. This realization means that Israel might wage a war against what it considers an existential strategic threat, i.e., the current Arab revolutions, and the threat might increase if revolutions toppled the ruling regimes
Thus, Israel would be involved in war on two levels:
First: Aborting the current revolutions by allying with counter-revolution forces and endeavoring not to provoke the interim government in Egypt as a prelude to stability. Thus, it would be enabling the establishment of a democratic regime which is not revolutionary and non-aggressive towards Israel.
Second: To be fully prepared to face a conflict with a new Egyptian rule which might consider Israel as a strategic enemy. This level of conflict is the most important as it will urge the Israelis to establish for a new security theory. The theory that will consider a strategic enemy is now present on its southern borders and a realignment of regional forces has occurred. For the moderate Arab camp might be dismantled, and an Egyptian–Iranian–Turkish partnership might be established, thus placing Israel face to face with a new existential predicament.
Therefore, the Israelis are adamant about thwarting the Egyptian uprising and mobilizing partners including media persons, businessmen and whoever they succeed to recruit, in order to contain the revolution and transform it into mere “reform movement” which winds up as a democratic regime aiming at internal reform without external burdens or problems. The Israelis will also work towards calm relations with the Egyptian Supreme Council for Armed Forces and exercise indirect pressures to prevent proximity with Iran, through Arab, European, American or even African partners.
On the Palestinian level, whether regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip (GS), the inter-Palestinian reconciliation or the Palestinian efforts to push for the declaration of a Palestinian State in the UNGA, the Israelis find themselves obliged to accept one of the following difficult options which might accelerate the conflict with the ruling regime in Egypt.
1. Undertaking a preventive military strike against GS to create confusion on the Palestinian, Arab and international levels. Thus, generating a crisis which distracts attention from the attempts at Palestinian national reconciliation and from the expected declaration of the Palestinian State next September. However, this option is extremely dangerous especially at this time, and it could be difficult for Israel to bear its consequences.
2. A tactic withdrawal from the West Bank according to the scenario of the “temporary Palestinian State” promoted recently by Shaul Mofaz, the Kadima leader and the chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, or in consistence with the unofficial initiative signed by 40 Israeli prominent personalities summarized in the establishment of a Palestinian State on most of the territories occupied in 1967 with a land exchange within 7%. Either of these steps would get Israel out of its isolation and crisis.
3. Pursuing a diplomatic approach. Calls would be renewed for negotiations with the PA or pressure would be exercised on the US and Europe to abort the Palestinian efforts to push for the declaration of a Palestinian State.
These are difficult but imperative options, and they are inevitable despite their potential impact on the relation with the new regime in Egypt, a relation which seems to be heading towards conflict whether sooner or later.
1. Protecting the revolution from counter-revolution and Israeli infiltration to guarantee the achievement of the revolution’s national goals.
2. Balancing internal and external goals of the Egyptian revolution in a way that guarantees both the sovereignty of Egypt and its regional and international status.
3. Prioritizing the Palestinian issue since it is a primary demand of the Egyptians and the Arab public.
4. Lifting the Gaza siege and opening Rafah crossing permanently.
5. Continuing with the Egyptian sponsorship of the Palestinian reconciliation and the efforts at bringing the Palestinian political house in order, on strong basis and away from American and Israeli pressures and considerations.
6. Egyptians must support the development of the role of the Arab League while raising the Arab ceiling of demands regarding the Palestinian issue and other Arab issues.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Dr. Muhammad al-Sa‘id Idris for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 30/4/2011
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