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Israel’s fear of the Arab Spring and celebration of the counter revolutions

Israel showed an unprecedented interest in the Arab Spring revolutions, assuming that they would have an impact on its “national security”, economic strength and regional environment.

Having considered the dimensions of Israeli media coverage of the revolution in Egypt, especially its strategic and economic consequences for Israel, and Israeli reliance on the Egyptian army to bring down Mohamed Morsi, it is worthwhile looking at how Israel has celebrated last year’s coup.

Promoting the coup

The Israeli media was the first to expose how the government in Tel Aviv was serving the coup authorities. Haaretz newspaper revealed that the Israeli government approached senior officials in the Obama administration to push for aid to Egypt to be maintained immediately after the coup. Such support stands at $1.3 billion every year and a block on it would, figured Israel, impact badly on its own security. The former Israeli ambassador in Cairo, Zvi Mazal, called on the world to prepare an aid package for the coup government, similar to the Marshall Plan for post-war Germany. It would, he argued, minimise the chances of the coup failing and Islamists returning to government.

The former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Israel, Alon Levin, called decision makers in Tel Aviv to determine the economic risks which threaten military rule in Egypt so that assistance could be provided without delay. The main focus was on water and agriculture and the possibility of offering Israeli technical and scientific capacity to reduce the impact of the problems. The stability of the military-led government was, it was decided, high on the priority list of “Israeli interests”. The coup, it was determined in Israel, strengthened its national security and stifled the resistance groups in the Gaza Strip.

According to Yedioth Ahranoth’s commentator of military affairs, Ron Ben-Yishai, the Egyptian army’s policy towards the siege of Gaza has shifted post-coup. The closure of tunnels and the Rafah border crossing has reduced the ability of the resistance groups to confront Israeli aggression. Ben Yishai said that Israel’s geostrategic position has improved since the coup and developments in Syria; the two biggest two armies in the Arab world are being kept busy by domestic enemies.

One political correspondent, Eli Birdenstein of Maariv, claimed that Israeli influence on Egyptian army officers helped the Zionist state to strengthen its position in the United States. As evidence, he cited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initiative to contact Egypt’s interim military government, led by Field Marshal Tantawi, and persuade him to release those charged with breaking local laws while running some human rights organisations, including some US citizens.

Other Israeli commentators have suggested that the coup government is keen to get closer to Israel. That is why, claimed General Roavin Pirkko in Israel Today, President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi threatens Hamas; it will also help to convince America that it can count on him. Israel-Egypt relations are now “better than ever”, says commentator on Arab affairs Avi Sekharov.

With “Islamists” being seen as a common enemy, the Israeli government is being pressured by former military officers to supply Egypt with intelligence and strengthen links with Al-Sisi’s government. As has often been the case in the Middle East, political stability is regarded as being more important than democratic transformation. This view has been confirmed in the Israeli media on the grounds that democracy usually leads to Islamists running governments. Ephraim Kam, writing in Israel Today, said much the same thing, while former Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin has called on US President Obama to amend American law so that Al-Sisi can be helped.

Although such views are common, their major purveyor is undoubtedly Boaz Basmot, a political commentator at Israel Today which is the widest-read Israeli newspaper. He has urged the West not to encourage democratic transitions which will not only lead to the rise of Islamic movements but also threaten Western interests. He has defended the isolation of Morsi, although he acknowledges that what happened was a coup, on the grounds that Egypt needs a “new Mubarak”. The underlying theme is that the Muslim Brotherhood or its offshoots must not be allowed into government anywhere in the region. The post-coup cultural and political climate is Israel-friendly and it should, commentators and officials alike argue, stay that way.

Israeli media outlets were widely supportive of articles published by a number of pro-coup Egyptian writers, who are keen on adopting the Israeli narrative of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In an article published in Al-Monitor, Israeli writer Jackie Huke celebrated in particular the criticism some coup-supporting writers made of the Arab position on the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British government supported the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

There have been some dissenting Israeli voices, however. John Lintser pointed out that Israelis who reject any interference in civil affairs by their own army are hypocritical to be enthusiastic about the coup that led to the overthrow of the first elected Egyptian president.

Al-Assad: an Israeli interest

There was initial panic when the Syrian revolution erupted, with some in Israel saying that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be a good thing while others said that it serves Israel’s interests for it to stay in power. Now that Assad’s chemical weapons are out of the way, however, there is near consensus in Tel Aviv that he should keep his position as president of Syria. “Our strategic interest,” former Israeli Chief of Staff Dan Halutz told the Jerusalem Post, “requires the survival of the Assad regime.”

Writing in Haaretz, former intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit said that a victory for Islamic groups in Syria will be more costly for Israel than the victory of the regime and Hezbollah. He argued that the Islamists cannot be deterred by Israeli power, while experience shows that Assad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah can. He did not hesitate to call on the Israeli government to facilitate the transfer of Syrian government weapons to Hezbollah so that they did not fall into the hands of jihadi groups.

It has been made clear by many commentators that it is in Israel’s interests for the conflict in Syria to be prolonged. This, insisted Walla website’s Yossi Millman, will not only exhaust all parties but also improve Israel’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. Israel believes that this could help it to get closer to Russia.

In an article published in Israel Today, Netanyahu’s political advisor Dori Gold clarified that both Israel and Russia fear the possibility of jihadis taking over in Syria, and this is a reason for both sides to get closer. Orientalist Yaron Friedman expressed his belief that Israeli national security considerations direct US policy on Syria; the Obama Administration will not overthrow Assad in case Syria falls to the Islamists, which will threaten Israel.

Israel and the axis of moderation

One of the changes that drew the attention of the Israeli media is the fact that the outbreak of the Arab Spring led to a convergence of interests between Israel and the Arab regimes that were targeted by the revolutions. Jordan and the Gulf states were identified as countries which share Israeli fears and concerns about the democratic changes.

Ex-ambassador Mazal praised the policy followed by many Arab countries which were anti-Morsi and refused to provide assistance to Egypt under his rule. This was the “axis of moderation”.

In an article published on the Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew website, former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin explained that the convergence of interests between Israel and some Arab countries which do not have diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv was unprecedented. This led a former chief of staff to say that the Arab Spring had provided ideal conditions for Israel to overthrow Hamas in Gaza and eliminate it completely.

However, it was the possibility of Jordan’s stability being compromised that was one of the main concerns for Israel; the kingdom is a key regional ally. “Thousands of Israelis,” wrote General Ephraim Sneha in Haaretz, “owe their survival to efforts made by the Jordanian intelligence services.” Jordan’s presence on Israel’s eastern border, said Yossi Beilin, is “the greatest blessing enjoyed by the Jewish [sic] state.” He attacked right-wing Israelis for trying to turn Jordan into an “alternative state of Palestine”.

Return of the Arab Spring

Although the political and media elites in Israel believe that the political and security reality established by the coup in Egypt, the ongoing conflict in Syria and the convergence of interests with the “axis of moderation” have given Tel Aviv wide margins for action on almost all fronts, there are some who warn that the region stands on shifting sands. Instability in Egypt and the region in general can bring disaster for Israel.

In their 2014 strategic assessment, three Israeli intelligence agencies (Military Intelligence, Foreign Intelligence [Mossad] and the Internal Intelligence service [Shin Bet]) point out that instability in the region can continue for a long time, and that could lead to negative shifts that undermine the positive transitions from which Israel has benefited.

The former head of Military Intelligence, General Amos Yadlin, was clear about his fears of the future; it will be difficult for the Egyptian people to accept the rule of “military dictatorship” after they had had a taste of freedom. He warned Israel of the consequences of developments in Egypt and the failure to develop plans to address the more serious scenarios on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts.

Translated from Al Jazeera net 19 June 2014

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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