A New Middle East
By Franck Znaty
06/27/2011 – “There are currently no doubts about the stability of the regime in Egypt.” It was in these words that the newly-installed Military Intelligence Director of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF), Major General Aviv Kochavi, presented his assessment of the political situation in Egypt to the Knesset Foreign Affairs Defense Committee, the day masses of Egyptians made their way to Tahrir square to demand the removal of Husni Mubarak.
The swift removal of power of Mubarak caught many off guard in Israel. While the Tunisian revolution, a mere couple weeks before, showed that this could be the template duplicated by disgruntled Egyptians to extricate themselves from the yoke of Mubarak, analysts assessed that Mubarak’s place as president was assured for some time thanks to the loyalty of the country’s security services as well as that of the army’s. In case the pressure on the regime became too high, the IDF was steadfast in its assessment that power would be transferred to a clique of security officials, whose head would be Omar Suleiman, the country’s former Intelligence chief.
The New Middle East was the title of a book written by the current Israeli President, Shimon Peres in 1994 in the aftermath of the Oslo accords. In this book, Peres outlined his vision for a Middle East whose template should be, he argued, post-World War II Europe in which economic integration was used as a starting point to reconcile and unite European nations on the way to further political integration.
Eighteen years later, as masses of Egyptians made their way to Tahrir Square celebrating the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, several Israeli newspapers borrowed the “New Middle East” idiom to describe the new threat environment that Israel will have to deal with in the future.
This new threat environment is far away from Shimon Peres’ idea of a ‘New Middle East’ will require a remodeling of its strategic thinking. This remodeling was reported earlier by SLD’s Robbin Laird who quoted the Israeli Air Chief calling for a “return to basics” echoing the context of the early days of the State’s existence in which Israel was surrounded by hostile countries bent on its destruction.
What follows is a general survey of the regional threats being directed at Israel as seen from Israel. In this article shall look at the situation Egypt and Syria and the implications vis-à-vis Israel. We shall look at in the next article on the challenges posed by Iran and the borders crossing that Israel had to face in recent weeks.
Israel is faced with many challenges in its future relationship with its neighbor across the Sinai.
The first challenge has to do with the possible coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the possible prospect of the repealing of the 1979 peace accords.
While there was no real fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would immediately take the reins of power, there is no doubt that they are the best organized political organization in the country and will be called on to play an important role in the country’s future. As confirmed in statements made to the Wall Street Journal, Amr Moussa, the front runner of this year’s presidential election, the Islamic bloc, led by the MB, is expected to put in an excellent showing in September’s elections which could well translate into an Islamist majority in Parliament. With this majority in hand, the MB will be in a great position to apply pressure to the new President in order to repeal, or at least review the terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
And Amr Mussa might just be the man for the job. He declared in that same article to the WSJ that Egyptians efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had “led nowhere” and that there might be a reorientation of the policies towards Israel that will aim to “reflect the consensus of the people”.
Popular pressure for the hardening of relations with Israel could very well influence the next Egyptian President. While a repeal of the peace treaty is not expected to take place in the short run, Israel needs to prepare for the reopening of the Southern front as the MB and other nationalist leaders have made it clear what their goals are.
From an Israeli perspective, the rebuilding of the Southern front is where the problem lies as this aspect has not occupied the minds of Israeli military strategists for the past 30 years. A large organizational shake-up is required since no operational planning has yet taken place in order to face an encounter against the Egyptian army in the Sinai.
As Amos Harel, an Israeli defense correspondent, opined in a column in The Guardian, the IDF “is trained for clashes with Hezbollah and Hamas, at the most in combination with Syria. No one has seriously planned for a scenario in which, for example, Egypt identifies with Hamas in the event of an Israeli attack in Gaza.”
Alex Fishman, a senior defense correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth, says that the prevailing view in the IDF was that “[a]s long as there’s peace with Egypt there’s no problem, yet if this peace ends, we certainly have a problem. Moreover, this problem will grow if Egypt is not our only front.”
Fishman continues and explains that as things stand today, the Egyptian army has not adopted an offensive posture and that there are no operational plans for a confrontation with Israel in the Sinai. Moreover, he argues that because of the nature of the battlefield in the Sinai, the IDF would have a clear advantage in that it would have the “ability to quickly spot targets and eliminate them”.
However, despite today’s confidence that Egypt will not rush into a confrontation, Israel needs to incorporate into its operational planning the readiness to confront a modern and well-equipped army. As Brigadier General (res.) Shlomo Brom and Yiftah Shapir wrote in a 2005 research paper discussing the military balance of power in the Middle East, the Egyptian army has equipped itself with platforms that would act as a deterrent against the IDF and that the qualitative gap between the two armies in terms of ground and aerial platforms have significantly narrowed. To highlight this point, consider the following: the Egyptian Air Force has 518 fighter planes and the ground forces have just under 4,000 tanks, including 920 Abrams M1A1 with an additional 125 being delivered.
The Egyptians are armed with U.S. equipment with the potential to face the Israelis similarly armed.
Another area of concern in its dealings with the new Egypt is the decrease or the total effacement of the cooperation between Jerusalem and Cairo in the fight against the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
The last few years have seen a greater level of cooperation between the two countries on this issue. It was reported that in March 2009, an Israeli Dolphin-class submarine was granted passage from the Suez Canal to the Red Sea on the way to naval exercises in the Persian Gulf. This was quite significant news as an Israeli defense official declared that “this was definitely a departure from policy” for the Egyptian authorities since this was the first Israeli warship passing through the Canal since 2005.
This “departure from policy” was clearly a message addressed to Iran as Egypt made clear to the Iranians that it would let the Israelis have easier access to the Iranian coast lines in case of an attack to thwart Teheran’s nuclear ambitions.
However, the scope of possible cooperation regarding Iran might be greatly reduced as recent news reports about a possible warming of relations between Cairo and Teheran suggest. A spokeswoman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry recently declared to the New York Times that the Mubarak era in foreign policy was over and Egypt is ready to open a new chapter in its relationship with Iran. She added: “All the world has diplomatic relations with Iran with the exception of the United States and Israel. We look at Iran as a neighbor in the region that we should have normal relations with”. While Egypt’s rapprochement with Iran is still far off from the relationship Syria entertains with Iran, this warming of relation is worrying from an Israeli perspective as Teheran’s net of influence in the region is now reaching Israel’s southern borders.
A third area of concern has to do with Egyptian policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip and Hamas. As the MB will gain more and more clout in the Egyptian political scene, a growing rapprochement could well be envisaged with the MB’s offshoot in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, the local branch of the MB. While under Mubarak’s Egypt, the policy in place was the breaking of relations with Hamas, the new Egyptian transitional government played the role of broker in the recent reconciliation deal between Fatah-Hamas.
In another departure from policy, it should also be noted that Egypt allowed the reopening of the Rafah crossing, which marks the entry point to Egypt territory from the Gaza Strip. Egypt decided to close the crossing in 2007, out of concern that it would be used as weapon smuggling passage that could bring instability to the Sinai and also in a move that was meant to penalize Hamas.
In short, Israel can expect in the next few months a sliding of its relationship with Egypt as Cairo experiences a reorientation of its foreign policy that contradicts Israel’s regional objectives. This year’s Presidential and Parliament elections in Egypt will be a good determinant and indicator of how far this relationship will slide in the near future.
The instability in Syria and the possible removal of power of current President Bashar al-Assad has caused great concerns and questioning in Israel. For Israel, in the words of Eyal Zisser, dean of Humanities at Tel-Aviv University and an expert on Syria and Lebanon, Assad is “the Satan that we know”. Zisser develops that Assad provided stability in the Golan but at the same time he sought and succeeded to reinforce its strategic partnership with Iran and Hezbollah. Indeed, Assad had on several occasions the occasion to stir things up in the Golan and open a new front for Israel such as during the 2006 Lebanon war, or the 2009 operation Cast Lead in Gaza and after the 2007 raid against Syria’s nuclear facility, which was attributed to the Israeli Air Force.
A question that is getting greater attention in Israel is whether Assad will use the old tactics of distracting the international pressure from what is happening within its borders by engaging in a provocation with Israel. While he has already done this by letting Palestinian refugees in Syrian crossing the border with Israel on May 15th (an issue we shall discuss in a future article), Assad could well decide to unleash some of its military arsenal onto Israel.
Yaakov Katz, the defense correspondent to the Jerusalem Post, suggests that Assad could make use of “the thousands of ballistic missiles Syria has manufactured over the years, as well as an extensive chemical arsenal, bolstered as a replacement for the nuclear reactor Israel destroyed in 2007.” This explains, he continues, that the Israeli defense establishment would see with a very bad eye the specter of a foreign military intervention in Syria.
This does not mean that Israel would not welcome the fall of Assad as some benefits could be yielded from it, as we shall see below. However, the suicide strategy consisting of striking Israel would be used at the very last resort in case of near collapse of the regime. This scenario, would make it very hard for Israel to counter, “for there will be no one to deter and punish”, warns Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Syria at the Bar Ilan University’s Besa Center.
Syria is composed of many different ethnic group and if the regime were to fall a situation similar to what happened in post-war Iraq could be envisaged because of the ethnic makeup of the country, continues Zisser. Fourty percent of the country’s population, he adds, is formed by different minority groups.
The post-Assad civil war scenario analysis is shared by Mordechai Kedar, who argues that as a result we could see Syria split into six states according to the country’s ethnic lines:
“The Kurds in the North will declare independence as did their brethren in Iraq; the Druze in Jabal al-Druze in the South will restore the autonomy stolen from them by France in 1925; the Bedouins in the East will establish a state with Dir a-Zur as its capital; the Aleppans will exploit the opportunity to throw off the yoke of the hated Damascenes.”
The break-up of Syrian into several states could actually provide great opportunities for Israel as it could mean the break-up the Syrian alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Kedar says brandishing Israel as an enemy would no longer be used as a factor uniting Syria. However, this analysis only holds if the new Syrian is indeed divided into different parts. Were the Sunni Muslim, making up almost 75% of the population take power in Damascus the cards of restraint vis-à-vis Israel could be redistributed.
Prof. John Myhill in an interesting article on the relationship between the Alawites and Israel argues that a Sunni-ruled Syria would not stand idly in case of a confrontation between Israel and Palestinians because of a share ethnicity with the Palestinians: “These Muslims are particularly dangerous to Israel because they are of the same ethnicity as the Palestinians — this is not just a matter of modern pan-Arab ideology, he writes. ” If a Sunni regime were to rule Syria, any wide-scale
Israeli-Palestinian clash, such as Operation Cast Lead, would likely trigger an emotional response, pulling Syria into an international war with Israel, regardless of the consequences. This represents a much more serious danger to Israel than the fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, where popular attachment to the Palestinians is much more superficial”.
 Middle East Military Balance files of the Institute for National Security Studies available at http://www.inss.org.il/upload/(FILE)1280140768.pdf