Hamas fighters testing a Gaza-made M-75 long-range missile, November 2013 / Getty Images
Maariv’s Eli Bardenstein offered a stunningly clear and disturbing report (in Hebrew, my translation below) on Friday that illustrates the vexing complications introduced into the triangular Jerusalem-Cairo-Gaza relationship by political turmoil in all three places. It makes a very useful companion piece to today’s front-page New York Times report by Jodi Rudoren on Israeli jitters over instability on its eastern front.
In both cases, as Bardenstein notes and Rudoren sort of hints, the Netanyahu government is ignoring the intelligence supplied by its own security establishment, which shows jihadi organizations making life difficult for both Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. The jihadis are creating turmoil, launching pinprick attacks on Israel that violate cease-fire agreements between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Hamas and Hezbollah are both besieged — Hamas by the new, anti-Islamist Egyptian military government, Hezbollah by jihadi spillover from the Syrian civil war (as well as political blowback from the Rafiq Hariri murder trial now underway in The Hague) — and are finding it increasingly difficult to enforce their respective cease-fires with Israel. Israel — meaning principally defense minister Moshe Yaalon — chooses to ignore the intelligence, blame Hamas and Hezbollah and launch military responses that only further weaken Hamas and Hezbollah and strengthen the jihadis.
I’ve translated Bardenstein’s piece below, but here’s the gist: Israel is alarmed at the unraveling of the November 2012 Pillar of Defense cease-fire “understandings” and the increasing rocket fire from Gaza — 17 rockets fired in January alone as of Friday (and more since then). It wants Egypt, which acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas, to pressure Hamas to stop the rocket fire. But Egypt has lost influence over Hamas since the military deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi last July. The military government’s approach is not to work with Hamas as Morsi did but to crack down on it.
Hamas, in turn, complains that the Egyptian crackdown — particularly the mass destruction of smuggling tunnels, which squeezes the Gaza economy — weakens Hamas rule and reduces its ability to control the jihadi organizations that are doing the firing. And both Cairo and Hamas complain that Israel has been making the situation worse by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s insistence on responding to every single rocket launching, no matter how ineffectual, with aerial bombardment.
Israel’s Walla News site offers a fascinating and, I think, crucial insight (in Hebrew) into the turmoil in Egypt and Syria. It’s by Dror Ze’evi, a professor of Turkish and Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. He writes that the two conflicts, however similar or related they might appear on the surface, are fundamentally different. One, in Egypt, is essentially political in nature, and is amenable to a political solution. The other, in Syria, reflects the sectarian, communal and to a degree existential divides in that part of the Arab world, and it could go on for a long time. He might have added that the vastly different tolls in bloodshed—a few hundred vs. tens of thousands—reflect that difference in the nature and depth of the two conflicts.
The conflict in Egypt reflects the character of Muslim society in North Africa, from Morocco through Algeria and Tunisia to Egypt, the region known in Arabic as the Maghreb (“the West”). The population there is almost entirely Sunni. Shia has not had a significant presence since the 10th-century Fatimid dynasty. The conflict there is not sectarian, but is over defining the relationship between state and religion in the modern world. It’s not exactly a conflict between religious and secularist—“the true secularists in the region can be assembled in the lobby of a medium-sized hotel”—but a debate among religious Muslims over the role of religion in the state.
Even among the most conservative religious [Muslims], there are many who oppose the aspiration of organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad to rule the state. Many groups call for deep social change, and stay away from politics.
By contrast, the conflict in the Mashreq (“the East”) is deeply sectarian and communal in nature. Since the 16th-century ascendancy of the Sunni Ottoman dynasty in the Fertile Crescent and the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty in Iran, the border between those two regions has roughly separated the region into areas of sectarian domination. The separation hasn’t been clear-cut, though. In the Sunni area, which roughly coincides with the Arab region (as opposed to Persian and Iranian),
At the risk of sounding ethnocentric, the current earthquake in Egypt has enormous implications for the well-being of Israel, and not in a good way. Put simply, the course of action that seems self-evidently proper to right-minded Americans — punishing the Egyptian military, ending military cooperation, suspending aid — will almost certainly have a catastrophic impact on Israel’s peace with Egypt. The irony is, it won’t particularly affect the course of events inside Egypt — the Egyptian military is too powerful internally, and too deeply hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood, for an American spanking to deter it. Nor would restoring the Brotherhood to power make the lives of ordinary Egyptians better. On the plus side, it would make us feel better knowing we had struck a blow, however symbolic, for democracy in the Middle East. We Americans love symbolic politics.
America’s billion-dollar-plus annual aid package to Egypt does not exist for Egypt’s benefit, but for Israel’s. It’s the carrot, or bribe, that keeps Egypt faithful to its peace treaty with Israel, despite its enormous unpopularity on the Egyptian street. That treaty is critical to Israel. And no, there’s no reason to think that peace with the Palestinians would make the Egyptian agreement unnecessary, nor suddenly dissipate the hostility of the Egyptian street. More likely the opposite: a disruption in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship would have a devastating impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Egypt has been a critical mediating force for years, both between Israel and the PLO and between the PLO and Hamas. And this is without discussing the sudden new importance of Israel-Egyptian cooperation given the rise of Al Qaeda-linked actors in Sinai (which I’ve written about in my latest Forward column — watch for it).
The horrific footage out of Cairo reflects not only Egypt’s worst dreams coming true, but Israel’s as well. The Obama administration is going to punish the Egyptians. At least that is how Washington began to act as of Wednesday evening. Congress has signaled that it might suspend military and economic aid to Egypt. Given the current atmosphere, there is a good chance that the Pentagon will suspend all cooperation with the Egyptian security establishment.
Looking at Egypt’s latest earthquake from the sober distance of a few solid hours, two important takeaways, each nicely captured in an eye-catching headline. One frames a fresh column by Bloomberg Businessweek deputy editor Romesh Ratnesar: “Revolt in Egypt Marks the End of America’s Illusions About Arab Democracy.”
The other sits atop a column by the canny Bulgarian journalist Victor Kotsev in the Hong Kong-based Asia Times: “Egyptian nightmare for Erdogan.”
Erdogan, of course, is Recep Tayyip Erdogan (AIR-doo-wan), prime minister of Turkey since 2003 as head of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which fancies itself the leading edge of a new wave of moderate political Islam. Kotsev writes:
While the Turkish government spent much of the last couple of years branding itself as a paradigm for Egypt and other Arab Spring countries, the reverse is now taking place: Egypt is becoming the nightmare scenario for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It’s a nightmare in several senses. For one thing, Turkey has spent vast sums of money and political capital trying to tout itself and Egypt as leaders of the new wave. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood last year in Egypt, the Arab world’s most popular country, was Erdogan’s chance to show that his brand of democratic Islamism had graduated from test-case to movement. Now, as Wall Street Journal reporter-blogger Joe Parkinson wrote today,
Analysts said that the prospect of the fall of Egypt’s democratically-elected Islamist government, could represent a serious blow to Turkey’s aspirations of regional leadership.
“The developments in Egypt are unfortunate, but along with the situation in Syria, it appears to mark the end of whatever dreams the Turkish government previously had of playing a leading role to a series of friendly Islamist governments in the region,” said Soli Ozel, professor of International Relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Hass University.
And not just dreams of regional leadership. Turkey has been rocked by major street protests of its own for the past five weeks. The violent phase seems to have ended—with a brand-new court victory for the protesters, it’s worth noting, annulling the parkland development project that brought them into the street—the mere fact that the protests could topple his fellow Islamist to the south has to be making Erdogan a tad nervous. And on top of that, the coup de grace was delivered by the army, the institution that’s been Erdogan’s greatest bane since the beginning. Kotsev:
True, the danger of a military coup in Turkey at the moment is close to zero, if only because Erdogan has locked up an entire army college (some 330 officers) on charges of plotting against him. But the parallels between the two countries run far beyond the superficial. For the record, so too did Egyptian still-President Mohammed Morsi try to purge the army last year, although he only removed a few top generals
Most importantly, both countries are experimenting with moderate political Islam, and the experiments have produced mixed result as far as genuine democracy is concerned.
As for America’s broken dreams, they also began a decade ago, when President Bush decided to adopt the strategy of exporting democracy as the way to tame the Middle East and “defeat the terrorists.” This is where it’s gotten us. Here’s Ratnesar in Bloomberg Businessweek:
Recently published analyses teach the following lessons:
Lesson 1. The Arab uprisings are not necessarily democratic in nature, and liberal readiness to back them — morally or with arms and material aid — is at best foolhardy romanticism. We should stand back and avoid getting involved. Why undermine existing regimes when the replacement might be no better and possibly much worse?
Lesson 2. The Arab uprisings show that ruthless dictators are finished, and proves the wrongheadedness of previous administrations’ willingness to work with them rather than seek their removal. The failure of the Obama administration and the rest of the liberal West to back the brave Syrian rebels shows the liberals’ hypocrisy and unwillingness to stand up to tyranny.
Lesson 3. The uprisings show that the Arab street never cared about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What Arab citizens care about are their own lives and welfare, not the Palestinians. It is misguided and reckless to assume that granting concessions to the Palestinians will improve Arab attitudes toward America or the West. Palestinian rights are just not on the minds of ordinary Arabs.
Lesson 4. The uprisings show that peace agreements are foolish because any regime that signs an agreement with Israel could be gone tomorrow and you can’t expect the replacements to honor the agreements. Successor regimes will be under more pressure from the Arab street to turn against Israel, if only to gain popularity with the public. Not that the Arab public cares about Israel (see 3 above). Agreements with Arab governments are unreliable because Arab governments are unstable. Successor governments will be more vulnerable to popular moods and less able to defy public hostility toward Israel.
Sub-Lesson 4(a). The Palestinian Authority’s refusal to commence negotiations with no preconditions is unreasonable. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is naturally unwilling to resume talks where they broke off during the former government of Ehud Olmert and rejects the terms that Olmert had already put on the table — including a future border based on the 1967 Green Line, the Jordan Valley under Palestinian control and a divided Jerusalem. Netanyahu has a different assessment of Israeli security needs and is not bound by his predecessor’s assessments. The Israeli electorate repudiated the Olmert concessions when it chose Netanyahu as its prime minister in 2009. Elections have consequences (except U.S. elections, which should not affect undertakings by previous presidents — they’re supposed to be sacred).
Note: All of the linked articles making the above arguments are taken directly from the Daily Alert, a comprehensive digest of news and commentary chosen to discredit Palestinian moderation and maximize fears of Israeli vulnerability, prepared daily for the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Your charity dollars at work.
New climate research indicates that food shortages caused by climate change are creating a tide of “environmental refugees” heading northward, along with unrest in the stricken countries. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are the latest indication of what’s to come. Yes, the yearning for democracy plays a role, but food and climate change are a big part of the story. So reports Agence France Presse’s Karin Zeitvogel from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which took place in Washington over Presidents Day weekend.
“In 2020, the UN has projected that we will have 50 million environmental refugees,” University of California, Los Angeles professor Cristina Tirado said at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
“When people are not living in sustainable conditions, they migrate,” she continued, outlining with the other speakers how climate change is impacting both food security and food safety, or the amount of food available and the healthfulness of that food.
Southern Europe is already seeing a sharp increase in what has long been a slow but steady flow of migrants from Africa, many of whom risk their lives to cross the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain from Morocco or sail in makeshift vessels to Italy from Libya and Tunisia.
The flow recently grew to a flood after a month of protests in Tunisia, set off by food shortages and widespread unemployment and poverty, brought down the government of longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, said Michigan State University professor Ewen Todd, who predicted there will be more of the same.
“What we saw in Tunisia — a change in government and suddenly there are a whole lot of people going to Italy — this is going to be the pattern,” Todd told AFP.
“Already, Africans are going in small droves up to Spain, Germany and wherever from different countries in the Mediterranean region, but we’re going to see many, many more trying to go north when food stress comes in. And it was food shortages that put the people of Tunisia and Egypt over the top.
“In many Middle Eastern and North African countries,” he continued, “you have a cocktail of politics, religion and other things, but often it’s just poor people saying ‘I’ve got to survive, I’ve got to eat, I’ve got to feed my family’ that ignites things.”
Yoram Kaniuk, one of Israel’s most prolific novelists a senior stateman of Israeli letters, writes in his Ynet column that artists, intellectuals and poets seem to be glaringly absent from the Arab democracy protests.
This week an Egyptian writer was interviewed about the uprising. He was reserved, but he spoke. Up until Monday, throughout the 18 days during which a revolution unfolded live on television, shaking the very foundations of Egyptian society, not a single voice of poet, author or any other cultural figure (ish ruach)was heard. It was a revolution of rage and courage, and they didn’t appear.
As someone who knows something about the media, I’m sure that at least some of the Arabic-speaking foreign journalists know a few authors and poets—and if they had been there, they would have been interviewed. Others were interviewed. We heard from young people who started the revolution. We heard from the state television journalist who courageously left her job and joined the protesters. But not one single man or woman of letters.
There has never been a revolution that wasn’t inspired or led by cultural leaders, Kaniuk writes.
The French and Russian revolutions were inspired by the words and struggles of cultural figures. The American struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, the Israeli struggle against the occupation, often featuring Palestinians and Israelis struggling side-by-side, all of them have prominently featured the voices of intellectuals and cultural figures. Perhaps not sufficiently, but they were there.
Why? Kaniuk doesn’t offer an answer. He just takes note and wonders.
This is the first bit or reporting I’ve seen on the strategic implications for Israel of all the popular ferment in the Middle East. By Crispian Balmer of Reuters Jerusalem bureau, Analysis: Bad neighborhood risks getting worse for Israel:
Political turmoil in Lebanon has strengthened Israel’s Iranian-backed enemy Hezbollah, while a leak of hundreds of sensitive documents has dented the leadership of its frustrated peace partner, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Attention has now swung down to the south, where its longest-standing Arab ally, Egypt, has been jolted by nationwide anti-government protests.
While the upheaval in Lebanon has caused concern, the fear of serious strife in Egypt has set alarm bells ringing.
The piece quotes former Barak diplomatic aide Gidi Grinstein, now head of the Reut Institute, warning that the prospect of regime change in Egypt is the most serious strategic threat. Pundits are speaking of an emerging democratic-populist-Muslim Brotherhood coalition challenging Mubarak in a coherent way.