The term “Arab Spring” has turned out to be premature. At best, it holds a vision for the distant future, and it certainly does not describe the current situation in the Middle East more than three years after Muhammed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia (December 17, 2010) and provided the initial impetus for the outbreak of the popular uprisings that swept the entire region. The optimism many expressed at the beginning of the upheaval has largely given way to disappointment and concern. Increasingly, it is doubted that the movement that toppled autocratic rulers is capable of providing political cohesion and liberal reform to societies that lack a democratic culture and are laden with poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, tribalism, social divides, radical Islam, the oppression of women, corrupt regimes, discrimination against minorities, poor education systems, backward economies, and a weakened middle class.
From Israel’s perspective, anchors that had provided relative strategic stability over the years have been weakened: Mubarak’s overthrow and the undermining of Egypt’s governability in general and in Sinai in particular; the deep crisis in relations with Turkey that seem unlikely to return to their previous levels; Syria’s de facto breakup; threats to the monarchy in Jordan – Israel’s neighbor, which has high strategic importance to Israel and the West; the anticipated changing of the guard in the Saudi leadership (King Abdullah is already past 90 and has serious health problems); Iraq’s difficulty in maintaining its unity and stifling internal terror; and so on. It is becoming increasingly difficult to deal with weakened governments that are no longer the real “address” for what is taking place in their sovereign territory where problematic non-state actors are strengthening at their expense. The shock waves and the lack of effective central government control open the door for Al Qaeda and Global Jihad forces to expand their presence closer to the border with Israel. They are increasing their numbers in Syria (including in the Golan Heights) and in Sinai, and have even made several attempts to attack Israeli targets. Alongside the release of popular forces and energies seeking freedom and economic well-being, progress, respect, and governability, the regional earthquake unleashed anti-democratic and anti-Western forces and energies that have become dominant. Thus, the way was paved for the rise of political Islam, though its performance and achievements at the helm of power brought disappointment and disillusionment, which even led to a military coup in Egypt. Violent jihadist forces have arisen and prospered around the Middle East and have, among other things, turned Syria into the greatest concentration ever of Global Jihad forces. In addition to all this, Iran has yet to abandon its efforts to possess nuclear weapons, despite the negotiations being conducted with it.
Some of the threats facing Israel are camouflaged by stormy events that would seem to indicate an improvement in its strategic stature: the Arab countries are preoccupied with problematic internal and economic challenges that jeopardize their stability; a conventional war against Israel does not appear a likely scenario; the Syrian army has been seriously worn down and is busy fighting a civil war; the Iran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis is in peril; political Islam has lost its standing and the luster has been removed from the seat of power in Egypt; Hamas has lost its base in Syria and after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government is now regarded as an enemy by Egypt’s rulers; Hezbollah’s standing has been hit as a result of its active fighting in Syria on the side of the hated Assad; and the Arab world, on the whole, is bedeviled by a violent internal Sunni-Shiite conflict. At the same time, the peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt remain in place; the development of the natural gas fields that will turn Israel into an energy exporter continues successfully, and regional players are seeking a connection with Israel in the face of threats posed by the Iranian axis.
Yet these facts, encouraging as they may be, cannot stifle deeper negative trends or change the reality that Israel is located in the heart of a violent and unstable region.
Even though the shockwaves in the Arab world are likely to reverberate for years, it is already possible to make a number of diagnoses that should inform Israeli strategic thinking: political Islam has become a very significant factor in the regional arena – in government and outside it; the growing power of the Arab street; the deep economic crisis; the outbreak of ethnic and religious disputes, and particularly the escalating Sunni-Shiite rift; central governments are weakening in the face of strengthening terrorist organizations and sectarian militias; and the growing sense that borders laid down almost 100 years ago by Sykes and Picot (1916) do not reflect ethnic and geopolitical realities. All these demonstrate the difficulty in shaping a single coherent doctrine that provides answers for every dilemma that arises. Some claim that in such a dynamic and unpredictable reality so rife with internal contradictions, it would be a mistake to apply a single rule to every situation that develops, that it is better to respond to each challenge separately:
The Egyptian Challenge
Since Morsi’s coronation as president (June 30, 2012), claims that the regime was failing grew, that it favored the Muslim Brotherhood’s sectarian interests and that it allowed the economy to deteriorate. Barely a year passed before Morsi was overthrown in a military coup (July 1, 2013), imprisoned and made to stand trial, which may place him in front of a firing squad. Hundreds were killed in the riots throughout Egypt. Field Marshall Sisi became the de facto ruler. Many of the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose movement was declared a terrorist organization and outlawed, were imprisoned. The West looked on astounded at the crude violation of human rights in Egypt. For example, following a trial that lasted only two hours, 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death (March 24, 2014). The all-out struggle that the Egyptian regime is waging against the Muslim Brotherhood reveals the extent to which Egyptian society is divided between forces that are bitterly hostile to one another: on one hand, the army and its supporters, and on the other, the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the young liberals who led the protests in Tahrir Square have also been imprisoned. (Since the revolution, more than 1,000 Egyptian civilians have been killed and 16,000 imprisoned due to their involvement in the protest against the regime). The new Egyptian constitution was ratified by a 98.1% majority in a referendum (January 14-15, 2014). However, only 38.6% of the electorate voted in the referendum, so it hardly represents a broad national consensus. The constitution grants the army immunity from serious criticism and allows for its continued dominance in Egypt. Sisi, who as expected won the presidential elections (May 26, 2014) had committed that, if elected, the Muslim Brotherhood would cease to exist in Egypt.11
In a relatively short period, the United States has been forced to shape a policy to deal with three different Egyptian regimes: those of Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi. This reality makes it difficult to establish a stable unequivocal strategy free of internal contradictions. And, in fact, the United States finds itself the object of criticism from all sides. Thus, for example, it has not defined Morsi’s overthrow as a “military coup” since such a recognition would require, under American law, the cessation of aid it provides Egypt at a time when this aid is considered essential to maintaining some kind of leverage with Cairo. The United States attaches great strategic importance to Egypt’s continued commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, to its cooperation in the struggle against global terror, and, of course, to free passage through the Suez Canal. Secretary Kerry encountered raised eyebrows when he stated that Sisi acted to “restore democracy.” At the same time, the Americans are also voicing criticism over the infringement of human rights and limiting joint military exercises and suspending some Egyptian military purchases. Moscow, having spotted an opportunity, is offering Egypt a significant weapons deal and has rushed to host Sisi and his foreign minister (February 12, 2014).
The interruption of the Muslim Brotherhood regime caused satisfaction in Israel. Instead of facing an extremely hostile regime allied with Hamas, Israel now faces a military regime whose modus operandi is familiar, and with which it is possible to cooperate. And indeed, the quiet security cooperation between the two countries has been tightened, a result of fulfilling common interests in the border area and beyond. Sisi’s regime understands the danger involved in allowing jihadist elements to become established in Sinai and is making an effort to combat this threat. It considers Hamas a threat, is stemming the trafficking of weapons into Gaza, and is making efficient strikes against the network of smuggling tunnels that have been dug between Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Israel – with the help of its friends in the United States – is trying to convince the American administration and Congress of the importance of supporting Sisi’s regime to the region’s stability and to the war against terrorism. It is even allowing Egypt to send forces into Sinai at levels above those stipulated in the military provisions of the peace treaty. Yet recent experience shows that stability in Egypt is far off, both because of the internal tension with the Islamic forces and because of the severe economic crisis that is expected to continue despite the generous Gulf assistance. Thus, alongside efforts to cultivate relations with Sisi’s regime, Israel’s eyes must remain open to the possibility that less comfortable scenarios may arise. Furthermore, it must pay attention to the gap between its own positive approach to Sisi’s regime and the Americans’ dualistic position.
The Syrian Challenge
The war in Syria, which has intensified in the past year, has so far claimed more than 150,000 lives and has made refugees of more than six million Syrians (that is, one in every three civilians – 2.3 million in neighboring countries, and the remainder within Syria itself). During 2013, Assad’s army registered some achievements: and in early May, 2014 even took back the “rebel stronghold” of Homs. Assad continues to enjoy the active military support of Iran and Hezbollah, and benefits from a Russian political-diplomatic umbrella and supplies of advanced weaponry intended to deter external military intervention. China is also not enthusiastic about applying military force against his regime. Assad held presidential elections (June 3, 2014), which gave him a further seven years in power and the ability to proclaim the legitimacy and legality of his government (even though the elections, which took place only in areas under Assad’s control, were boycotted by his opponents).
The revelation that Assad used chemical weapons against civilians brought the United States to the brink of attack on Assad’s military, which would have fulfilled its threat that it would not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Obama announced (September 1, 2013) that he would seek the approval of Congress prior to a military strike against Syria, but his request was not brought to a vote. Avoidance of U.S. military operation came as a result of Kerry’s comments (September 9, 2013) that a military operation would not occur if Assad would agree to the destruction of his chemical weapon stockpile. Moscow hurried to take advantage of the opportunity to save its ally from an American military attack and gained Assad’s agreement to give up all the chemical weapons in his possession as well as his manufacturing capability (which he had previously denied existed). This surprising development – even though its implementation is lagging behind the timetable to which Damascus committed and despite the use that the regime continues to make of less lethal chemical weapons and suspicions that Assad has retained a certain residual capability – provided Israel with a significant strategic achievement (assuming it is fully implemented) in that it removes the substantial threat these unconventional weapons posed to the Jewish state.
The war in Syria brings together in a single geographic arena different types of “actors” and different types of response: the internal forces battling each other against an ethnic, tribal religious, and political background, the neighboring countries that fear destructive spillover into their territory, the regional forces, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, which are transposing their competition for regional hegemony onto Syrian soil, the radical Islamic forces that see an opportunity to advance their pan-Islamic ideology, the superpowers (the United States and Russia) that are vying for influence in the area and pushing for conflicting solutions, and, of course, the factions that have been motivated by the historical conflict (Sunni versus Shiite) since the dawn of Islam. The war has brought a heavy human tragedy and caused waves of refugees who are weighing down the economies of neighboring states (over a million in Lebanon, some 600,000 in Jordan and 900,000 in Turkey), yet the international community has not succeeded in stemming the crisis. Russia and China prevent the adoption of binding UN Security Council resolutions that would mean Assad’s ouster or would at least impose humanitarian restraints on him. The United States has avoided supplying significant weapons (particularly anti-aircraft weapons) to the rebels given the uncertainty about what will happen in Syria after Assad departs, the existing split within the opposition forces, and the fact that among the groups fighting Assad there is an increasing dominance of Al-Qaida and Islamic Jihad elements for which Syrian has become a magnet (according to Israeli intelligence estimates, they number approximately 30,000!). The concern is that the weapons would fall into the hands of radical Islamic elements and would ultimately be used against American and Israeli targets. Furthermore, the arrival of thousands of foreign jihadists in Syria raises the concern that they will become a destabilizing factor when they return to their homelands – just as the “graduates” of Afghanistan (Osama Bin-Laden among them) did in their day.
The Geneva II talks of January 2014 ended in failure. The talks, in which representatives of the government and the opposition participated, were intended, in theory, to implement the agenda decided upon in the Geneva I talks (June 2012), and at its heart: political transformation, meaning Assad’s ouster. However, Iran does not accept this principle (and thus its invitation to the talks was cancelled), and Russia, which was not interested in having the talks deal with Assad’s future, pressed to have them deal with secondary matters. Israel is following the shockwaves that its northern neighbor is experiencing while strengthening its deployment along the border and preparing for the possibility that the weakening of the central government in Damascus will turn Syria into a beachhead for Islamic terrorist elements that will work to undermine the quiet along the Golan border with no central address that can be efficiently deterred. Or it could become an alternative arena for anti-Israel Hezbollah activity – as occurred recently following a further Israeli attack (according to foreign reports) against a convoy of game-changing weapons sent by the Syrian regime to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Lebanese Challenge (Hezbollah)
The civil war in Syria undermines the stability of Lebanon. Over a million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon are creating a significant humanitarian and economic crisis. Hezbollah’s support for Assad undermines its position in the Arab world generally, but particularly in Lebanon. Several thousand of the organization’s fighters are operating alongside Assad’s forces in Syria. The hundreds of them who have been killed have been returned to Lebanon for burial. This reality refutes the organization’s claim that its military capacity is exclusively intended to defend Lebanon against Israel. Its standing beside the hated Assad is portrayed as a Shiite affront against the Sunnis, and pulls the rug out from under the image Nasrallah has cultivated over many years: that Hezbollah works in the interests of all Lebanese citizens. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has made Lebanon part of the battlefield and has brought with it bloodshed and deteriorating internal stability. The Sunni rebels fighting Assad exact revenge on Hezbollah and Iran with attacks carried out on Lebanese soil. The internal tension has intensified since May 25, 2014, when the current president’s term ended with no agreement reached over who would replace him (under the constitution, the president must be a Christian). Hezbollah, which has avoided for an extended period opening a front with Israel, and has, for a long time, not responded to attacks ascribed to Israel against convoys of strategic weapons from Syria intended for its use, and against the stockpiles of advanced Iranian missiles stored near Damascus. Recently, though, the Shiite organization has begun to respond with attacks against Israeli patrols in the Golan Heights and its reach has extended to Bangkok where, in mid-April 2014, the local police arrested two Hezbollah operatives who had planned to attack Israeli tourists. Hezbollah’s continued efforts to arm itself with advanced Syrian and Iranian weaponry, and Israel’s determination to thwart this, has the potential to lead to an escalation, possibly to revenge attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide, and even a slide into war. Under certain conditions, Hezbollah may decide that only a violent confrontation with Israel can restore the support it has lost in Lebanon and the Arab world.
The Jordanian Challenge
Although the “Arab Spring” sparked demonstrations in Jordan, they were not as widespread as in other Arab countries. The protests focused on issues of corruption, calls for political reform, and expressions of anger at the worsening economic situation, rising prices, and the increasing unemployment rate (30%). In the past, the opposition in Jordan has avoided criticizing the king himself, whose being a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed’s family is a considerable source of legitimacy. But since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring,” this taboo has been challenged and King Abdullah II and his family have been attacked publicly (with the emphasis on his wife, Queen Rania, who is portrayed as a disconnected spendthrift), even though there have been few calls for regime change, which have come only from the margins of the political arena. Demands for reforms that will erode the Abdullah’s power and result in Jordan becoming parliamentary monarchy are not limited to the Muslim Brotherhood. There is also dissent and discomfort within the king’s traditional base of support, the Bedouin tribes, who regard him as a bulwark against the increased power of the Palestinians. The civil war in Syria has intensified the internal situation in Jordan and has dealt serious blows to its economy, infrastructure, and its social fabric (approximately 60% of Jordan’s foreign trade is conducted through Syria). More than 600,000 Syrian refugees (which amounts to 10 % of Jordan’s population) are putting heavy pressure on the Kingdom (in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have remained in the country after fleeing their own war and hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria who are not registered as such). Jordan is forced to pay substantial amounts for imported energy as jihadists in Sinai has been blown up the gas pipeline from Egypt innumerable. Moreover, jihadist elements have moved from Jordan to Syria to fight against Assad, which raises concerns about their destabilizing influence once they return to Jordan.
The danger of Jordan’s destabilization worries the West and, of course, Israel. President Obama, who hosted the King Abdullah II in the United States (February 14, 2014), expressed his sympathy and promised to provide credit guarantees of $1 billion and to renew the five-year agreement that will ensure the continuation of the joint civilian and military aid the United States provides Amman. A stable, pro-Western and friendly Jordan provides Israel with significant strategic depth. Its security forces demonstrate professionalism and efficiently prevent terrorist elements from using Jordanian territory as a base for attacks against Israeli targets. The fruitless round of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians showed that, whenever the possibility of a breakthrough arises, so do concerns on the Jordanian side: about how to safeguard Jordan’s status vis-a-vis the Jerusalem holy sites, how to preserve the security of the Jordan River border after the establishment of a Palestinian state, and how to ensure that a solution to the problem of the Palestinian refugees will not ignore the fate of those who have found refuge there, that it will not bring additional refugees to Jordan from Lebanon and Syria, and will include an allocation of appropriate compensation to the Jordanian government for the costs it has incurred over the years as a result of absorbing Palestinian refugees. The implication for Israel, of course, is that it should work to strengthen the Kingdom economically and militarily and dispel any doubts or suspicions it might have, particularly in the wake of the failure of the talks with the Palestinians, that Israel regards Jordan as the solution to the Palestinian problem.
The Turkish Challenge
The severe crisis between Israel and Turkey, which first became apparent with the strengthening of Islamic forces beginning in 2002 and erupted in full force following the Turkish flotilla to Gaza incident in 2010, took a significant turn when Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in a telephone conversation that was held at President Obama’s side just as he was about to leave Israel (March 22, 2013). Netanyahu expressed his government’s readiness, in principle, to compensate the families of those killed aboard the Mavi Marmara and made clear in response to another Turkish demand – “to remove the blockade from Gaza” – that many steps had been taken to ease the passage of people and goods into the Gaza Strip. The United States pressed for reconciliation between its two allies, whom it regards as anchors of stability at the heart of a stormy and unpredictable region, although tensions in Turkish-U.S. relations cannot be ignored: differences over approach to Syria, the possible Turkish purchase of a Chinese air-defense system, Turkey’s demand that the United States extradite Fethullah Gülen, the popular religious leader in exile in the United States, and American criticism of the deterioration of democracy in Turkey.
The war in Syria increased Jerusalem and Ankara’s interest in easing the crisis between them and to create the basis for the cooperation that might be necessary in light of the implications of a continued deterioration in their common neighbor, Syria. Most commentators do not anticipate a return to the same close strategic partnership that characterized relations between the countries in the past (even though the level of mutual civilian trade actually increased during the crisis). Turkey consistently supports Islamist elements, including Hamas, is extremely critical of Israel, and is headed by a leader who is hostile to Israel and does not hesitate to enhance his popularity at home and in the Arab world with harsh anti-Israel rhetoric. This impulse may erupt given the internal problems threatening Erdogan’s administration: the slowing of the economy, social protests, revelations of government corruption, and the stance of Fethullah Gülen and his movement against Erdogan.
These problems did not prevent Prime Minister Erdogan and his party from achieving impressive results (43% support) in municipal elections held on March 30, 2014. Erdogan’s announcement (July 1, 2014) that he would run for the presidency in August 2014 has strengthened speculation that he will work to change the president’s role from a ceremonial to an executive one).
Despite common interests between Israel and Turkey with regard to Syria, and the common concern over instability there and over the growth of terrorist and jihadist elements (and the accompanying collapse of the policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s neighbors), there are quite a few differences in orientation and policy that may cast a shadow over the reconciliation and future relations between Ankara and Jerusalem. In the weeks that preceded the security deterioration in Gaza and Operation “Protective Edge” there were growing signs that the two countries are close to finalizing a reconciliation agreement. Media reports abounded that Israel had agreed to raise the compensation it will pay to families of those killed in the flotilla incident to over $20 million, that Turkey is prepared to prevent legal proceedings on its territory against Israelis who were involved in the Mavi Marmara incident – and that Jerusalem and Ankara are close to an agreement that would re-normalize relations with the respective ambassadors resuming their posts. Erdogan recently predicted (April 28, 2014) that it would be a matter of “days or weeks” until it will be possible to begin the process of normalizing relations, the first step in which, he said, would be the ambassadors’ return to the respective capitals. Erdogan even expressed the hope that “no more black cats” would appear and change the situation.12 Yet with the military operation against Hamas, Erdogan declared that relations with Israel would not return to normal until Israel ceases permanently its attacks in the Gaza Strip and removes its “inhuman embargo.”13 Erdogan used harsh anti-Israel rhetoric and called Israel’s actions in Gaza an attempt to commit “systematic genocide.”14 It is reasonable to assume, then, that even if the reconciliation agreement is finalized in the future, Israel will find it difficult to depend on Turkey as the supportive regional anchor it had been in past decades.