Israel´s old certainties crumble in Arab spring fallout (GUARDIAN UK) Ian Black at Mount Avital, Golan Heights 07/18/12)
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Disintegration of Syria into civil war is latest unwelcome
development on Israel´s borders
On a ridge high above the Golan plateau, the telltale antennae and
golfball radomes of an Israeli surveillance station point north-east
towards Damascus. In the valley below, minefields, barbed wire fences
and a blue UN flag mark the frontline between the two most powerful
armies in the Middle East. Behind it is a country in the throes of
Round the clock, from its perch on Mount Avital, the Israeli army´s
unit 8200 eavesdrops on Syria, a former bastion of stability that is
now crumbling along with other old certainties about the region. It
is simple enough, say, to monitor the communications of an armoured
division or track a MiG fighter squadron, but far harder to
understand the calculations going on in Bashar al-Assad´s
head. "Tanks are the easiest thing to follow," says a veteran
intelligence officer in Tel Aviv.
Ora Peretz lives in a kibbutz founded when Israel conquered the Golan
Heights in 1967 and runs a cafe selling cherries, coffee and cold
drinks. "We see terrible things on TV about what is happening in
Syria," she said, as a group of tourists peered across no-man´s land
at the ruins of Quneitra. "But it´s quiet here. People say Assad
might try to do something desperate. But I know we are ready if he
The potential fallout from a disintegrating Syria is not Israel´s
only worry. Last month´s election victory for the Muslim
Brotherhood´s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt and jitters about unrest in
Jordan have raised troubling questions about the country´s peace
treaties with two of its immediate neighbours. In Lebanon, the third
neighbour, Hezbollah armed by Iran and Syria is seen as a
permanent challenge to Israel´s regional dominance. Israel´s once
close relations with Turkey are in ruins.
Official discourse in Israel frowns on the romantic phrase "the Arab
spring". The reference point is more Tehran 1979 than Berlin 1989. In
government offices the preferred terms are "awakening" or
Politicians do use a seasonal metaphor, but a far chillier one. "For
us it is an Islamist winter," says Ronnie Bar-On, chairman of the
Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee. A colour photograph of
Auschwitz above his desk is a bleak reminder of what still makes many
Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud prime minister, likes to describe the
Middle East as a "tough neighbourhood". Ehud Barak, his defence
minister, once compared Israel to a "villa in the jungle" a phrase
that smacked of colonialism and racism. In recent months both have
warned of the danger of Iran going nuclear and hinted at a pre-
emptive attack to stop it and maintain Israel´s atomic supremacy.
But developments closer to home are deeply unsettling. Israel´s
relations with the Arab world and its strategic position in the
Middle East have reached "a new low", in the words of Itamar
Rabinovich, a leading historian of the Middle East and a former
ambassador to the US.
In Israel´s foreign and defence ministries, officials admit they were
taken by surprise by events. Distant Tunisia had been of little
interest since Yasser Arafat brought the PLO back from there to Gaza
and the West Bank in the wake of the Oslo agreement in 1993. Libya is
remote, too. Egypt, the largest Arab state and the first to break
ranks and make peace with Israel, is another story. "When Mubarak
fell the Arab world was stunned and we were as well," says a senior
official in Jerusalem.
Last year, as the world watched the drama of Tahrir Square, Binyamin
Ben-Eliezer, a one-time Labor defence minister, deplored the
overthrow of Mubarak and even offered him asylum in Israel. It was
proof for Egyptians enraged by their president´s complicity in the
Gaza blockade and his silence during the 2009 "Cast Lead" war that
the old regime was on the "wrong" side of history.
Nervous reactions duly followed. In September, after five Egyptian
policemen were killed by Israeli troops pursuing Palestinian gunmen
in Sinai, a crowd stormed Israel´s embassy in Cairo and its terrified
staff had to be evacuated. "Darkness falls on Egypt," screamed one
Hebrew paper, echoing the biblical 10 plagues, when Morsi beat
Mubarak´s former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq to the presidency.
Publicly, the government response has been low-key. In private Israel
fears that in the longer term the Islamists will strengthen their
position in relation to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. For
now, Israel´s links with the Egyptian military and mukhabarat
security people are still functioning well. No one expects the 1979
peace treaty to be scrapped, if only because it would risk $1.3bn in
annual defence support from the US, though there may well be an
attempt to renegotiate its military provisions. Egyptian public
opinion will now be far harder to ignore.
Other problems loom. There is concern about the Sinai peninsula
where, the Israelis say, extremist Salafi groups are operating.
Attacks on gas pipelines have become routine, as has weapon-smuggling
from Sudan and Libya to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. For Israel´s
armed Palestinian enemies, the lawless desert provides useful
depth. "When we looked at our overall threat assessment of the region
three years ago, Egypt was barely mentioned," recalls the senior
official. "It´s not a threat now, but there are a lot of question
To the east, Jordan is a new source of anxiety. Its 1994 peace treaty
with Israel is vital to the western-backed monarchy but has always
been unpopular. Over the last turbulent year King Abdullah has faced
more problems with the traditionally loyal East Bank tribes than from
the restive Palestinians.
If Assad falls, tensions are likely to rise in Jordan and its Muslim
Brotherhood will be emboldened. That treaty is also safe for now,
according to Meir Dagan, the last head of the Mossad and guardian of
the special relationship with Amman. Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu´s
super-hawkish foreign minister, has gone out of his way to reassure
Jordan there is no truth to rumours that Israel is scheming to turn
it into an "alternative homeland" for the Palestinians so it can keep
hold of the West Bank for good.
If all this adds up to an alarming picture, the dangers are different
from in the past, say the experts. "In the 1950s and 1960s we
Israelis worried about Arab power that we might be overwhelmed by
them and their Soviet weapons," says Asher Susser of Tel Aviv
University. "Now we face the fallout of Arab weakness."
Last May, for example, on "Nakba" day commemorating the loss of
Palestine in 1948 hundreds of Palestinians marched across the
normally strictly controlled Golan border from Quneitra right under
the antennae on Mount Avital. It was the first time it had been
breached in three decades, a handy diversion for a beleaguered Assad.
The possible leakage or theft of Syrian chemical weapons or the
emergence of al-Qaida-type terrorism are other headaches.
In the defence establishment there is recognition that Israel´s
traditional interest in regime stability and the military has been
too narrow; that understanding the novelty of Arab "people power"
requires a shift in focus. "When the regimes around us were
dictatorships to a greater or lesser degree, most of what IDF [Israel
Defence Forces] intelligence and Mossad researchers had to do was to
focus on the man at the top of the pyramid and the small group of
generals, advisers and relatives under him," wrote Amos Harel,
military correspondent of the liberal daily Ha´aretz. "Tahrir Square
changed all that. Suddenly the intelligence services are talking
about whole nations, public opinion and social networks."
Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University,
believes the Arab spring has pushed Israel deeper into a
defensive "bunker mentality" in the face of events it perceives as
existential threats rather than as circumstances that have been
created partly by itself, especially by continuing to build illegal
settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
For 12 years, since the collapse of the Camp David talks and the
second intifada, there has been an impasse on the issue at the heart
of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu´s government says it would
refuse to negotiate with a Palestinian unity government which
includes the Islamists of Hamas, who refuse to abandon armed
resistance or formally recognise the Jewish state. The PLO is adamant
that it will not talk while settlement activity goes on. The two-
state solution to the conflict thus looks less and less likely to be
Mahmoud Abbas´s Palestinian Authority, created under Oslo as a
temporary administration, still rules in Ramallah but it has not been
immune to the winds of change.
Strapped for cash and co-operating closely on security with Israel
enemies accuse the PLO leader of "collaboration" it, too, faces
dissent at home. "It would be a mistake to leave the Palestinians out
of the picture of the Arab spring," says Klein. "Israel´s nightmare
is that Abbas collapses and Hamas takes over. I wouldn´t be surprised
if he fell. We didn´t think that Assad or Mubarak would lose power
No one expects a revived peace process any time soon. "For the
foreseeable future," predicts Shlomo Avineri, former director-general
of the foreign ministry, "regardless of what is happening around the
region there are not going to be any meaningful Israeli-Palestinian
negotiations." The best hope, say western diplomats, is "muddling
through" until after the US presidential election in November, and
hope that no new intifada erupts.
Part of the price of this long impasse is the fading of the 2002 Arab
peace initiative, in which all 21 Arab states remarkably in the
light of the history of the conflict offered full recognition of
Israel in return for a just settlement of the Palestinian issue. "The
Arab initiative is not really relevant any more," warns Gilad Sher, a
former Israeli negotiator. "No Israeli government ever found it
interesting enough to even discuss it. That´s a pity. And now we
don´t know who will be sitting in the room. Who will represent Syria,
Libya? Who are the representatives of the Palestinians the PLO or
Many Israeli Jews seem largely indifferent to all this. "The Arab
spring is a non-story here," suggests Tom Segev, a historian and
columnist. "Most people think things can go on for ever. Bibi
[Netanyahu] has managed to create the impression that there´s no
Palestinian partner for peace and that everything is just fine.
Israelis tend not to be interested in Arabs as people but as enemies.
Sure, people will be pleased when Assad falls, as we were when Saddam
went. But it won´t make any difference to the cost of renting an
apartment in Tel Aviv."
For some, surveying these historic changes in the region, the lesson
is obvious. "In the 1950s and 1960s the message from the Arab world
to Israel was clear: ´We hate you and we don´t want you here,´ " says
Tel Aviv university professor Eyal Zisser, Assad´s biographer. "Now
the message is: ´We hate you and we don´t want you here but you are
here and what can we do about it?´ It´s not a love story but it is a
sort of acceptance and that is important, and Israel should not
ignore it. Israel should do something in response and that has to
mean movement on the Palestinian question. What makes an Egyptian
Arab or a Tunisian Arab? It´s the Palestinian question. Israel needs
to send a positive message on this to the Arab masses."
Optimists see opportunities as well as threats. Assad´s fall would be
a serious blow to Iran and to Hezbollah, gains that outweigh the
old "better the devil you know" argument about stability in Damascus
and quiet on the Golan.
From Cairo, Morsi might influence Hamas a branch of the Muslim
Brotherhood to moderate its position on Israel, if the restrictions
on Gaza are significantly eased. Turmoil, however, looks more likely
to breed caution than risk-taking in the current climate. "There is a
benign scenario about Egypt," agrees a Netanyahu aide, "but not many
of our national security people believe in it."
In his Knesset office, Ronnie Bar-On sums up the view from
Jerusalem. "The picture is definitely grim. It´s true that change can
be an opportunity, but for the moment I don´t hear the bells
ringing." (guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2012
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