Nir Boms and Asaf Hazani.Middle East Online
Israelis have used a variety of terms to describe the past few years’ events in the Arab world, reflecting how different actors have perceived the changes. What began as an “Arab spring” grew into a dangerous “radical Islamic winter”; and as Israel’s leaders remained unable to define the nature of the transformations, it became a “Middle East upheaval.” Gradually the tendency to swing between optimism and pessimism turned into profound puzzlement.
Impressed by the domino effect of the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, Israelis initially saw the wave of protests as a fascinating sociological experiment taking place “over there,” far from its own borders. The country continued to think of itself as separate, a unique case in the Middle East or, as former Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak (2007-13) put it, “a villa in the jungle.” Even the “tent protests” that broke out in the summer of 2011 were seen as an expression of bourgeois discontent, a summer adventure related more to events in the United States and Europe (the Occupy movement, the Indignados) than to the regional turbulence.
Israel initially chose to remain aloof. And although the Arab Spring made Israeli headlines, major developments in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain went unremarked upon since they were not seen as directly affecting national security.
But as the effects of the regional upheavals began to make themselves felt, the Israeli leadership was forced to accept that the Arab revolts could affect national interests. It began to grow concerned when weapons held by Muammar Gaddafi in Libya before 2011 started to reach terrorist elements operating near Israel’s borders. Terrorist activity that began in the Sinai peninsula after the fall of Hosni Mubarak at the start of 2011, intensified with the ousting of Mohammed Morsi in summer 2013. The successive Egyptian presidents, struggling to maintain a semblance of stability in Sinai, faced increasing challenges to their authority. Israel, which had signed a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979, was in a quandary. Should it respond to the terrorist activities, or admonish Egypt for its incompetence? Both options were risky. A third option was to agree to review the military appendix to the peace agreement, allowing Egypt to reinforce its troops in the Sinai—a crucial choice that would mean sacrificing the present for better future security.
Sinai was not the only challenge. The destabilisation of Jordan, long neglected, created growing concern in Israel. Meanwhile the fighting in Syria began to attract interest from global jihadist organisations, which strengthened their foothold as the country fell into chaos. Israel observed these developments with anxiety, closely monitoring the Palestinian territories, in the hope that the Middle Eastern “cascade” would stop at the Israeli border. The Israeli leadership found itself increasingly troubled by one question: With the rise of so many armed groups, were states still relevant actors? In 2006 Lebanon had been unable to prevent the conflict between Hizbullah and Israel.
In Syria, during the first months of the revolt that began in March 2011, Bashar al-Assad initially sought to frame events as a passing storm, nothing to do with the regional upheavals; he maintained that theFriday protests, limited in time and place, did not amount to a general uprising against his government. Yet very soon Syria was plunged into a bloodbath, and the violence within the country began to affect the entire region. With the arms trafficking that followed the fall of the Libyan regime, the foreign jihadists making their way to Syria continued to grow in number.
The fighting in Syria is now affecting the whole region, and the country’s distress and the waves of refugees it has produced are attracting renewed international attention. The hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have affected those countries’ stability, while Israel, the traditional enemy, has not been called upon to help manage the problem. Indeed, the Palestinians have refused to coordinate with the Israeli government over their own efforts to help the refugees—which suits Israel as it already has enough problems dealing with a high level of labour immigration from Africa.
There are further reasons for Israel’s leadership to take comfort. One is that the Palestinian question has received far less international attention since the beginning of the Arab Spring. Until the eruption of hostilities in Syria, when someone mentioned refugees in the Middle East they meant Palestinians—now they mean Syrians, who form the greatest number of displaced people, either in exile or within Syria itself.
The second reason relates to Israel’s own security—its perpetual and paramount concern. Fears of Syria’s dissolution have changed relations within the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah axis. Previously both Iran and Syria were focused on assisting Hizbullah. Now, even if Israel is still concerned that the Assad regime may put unconventional weapons into Hizbullah’s hands, it sees that Syria has become the main recipient of aid. This is a significant change given that the Israeli establishment has tended to see geopolitical events purely in terms of security and ignore all the changes it judged to have no direct impact on that.
As events unfolded, Israel was glad to watch from the sidelines, believing the Assad regime was headed for collapse. It was also pleased when in 2012 Damascus ended its relationship with (Palestinian) Hamas. As the conflict in Syria grew, many senior Israeli leaders repeated what prime minister Menachem Begin had once said in a different context: “I wish both sides the best of luck.”
Yet Israel does have clear interests in all this. The fall of the Assad regime would serve Israeli interests by destabilising the Iranian-Shia axis. On the other hand, given the weakness of Syria’s secular opposition, victory for the insurgents could bring about an Islamist regime hostile to Israel in its own backyard. Assad is a known quantity—an officially declared enemy, governing from a palace, with whom it is possible to communicate. But the insurgent organisations have no postal address and are so numerous that it’s impossible to fight or negotiate with them as one would with a state (bombing strategic sites or communicating via a third party).
Israel has almost succeeded in not taking sides overtly. And the international diplomatic effort that led to scheduling the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons has relieved some serious Israeli concerns. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) homeland command, in charge of civilian defence, has even halted production of gas masks. Israel has also drawn its own red lines with air strikes against Syrian military targets in order to prevent the transfer of strategic weapons (especially from Syria to Hizbullah) and to counter the threat of the Syrian conflict spilling over into the Golan Heights (Israel has occupied the plateau since 1967 and annexed it in 1981) or into Israel proper. The latest such strikes took place this February and March.
The Golan, which has served as a buffer zone since the 1973 war, no longer fulfils that purpose: UN forces are no longer effective, and there is fighting close to the border. Mortar and artillery shells, machinegun fire and roadside bombs frequently strike Israel and Israeli targets, intentionally or not.
The question is how Israel should respond. Should it allow the UN to strengthen its forces in the region, as it has allowed Egypt to strengthen its forces in Sinai, or should it fire back and risk a dangerous escalation? Should it assist one side, or refrain from helping either side, or provide different levels of assistance to both sides? If it does provide aid, should it do so directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly? And there is a further question: Should Israel in that case supply arms—a form of assistance it knows well—or restrict itself to humanitarian aid?
Without any open strategic discussion, Israel has been actively involved in providing medical aid in the Golan since February 2013. IDF paramedics have been treating injured Syrians in the border areas, and a field hospital has been set up to receive the growing numbers of wounded, some of whom have been transferred to the hospital at Safed. Over 800 Syrians have so far been treated. And other humanitarian operations are taking place with the help of various NGOs.
With the southern Golan becoming a strategic haven for radical Islamist organisations, Israel is under increasing pressure to choose between trying to actively remodel and influence the region, or waiting to see what the future may hold. Analysis of Israel’s actions so far shows that no conclusion has yet been reached. Israel is not assisting the rebels within Syria, or outside, which suggests it would prefer the Assad regime to continue, opting for the enemy it knows. However, Israel’s willingness to contemplate international intervention and its expanding humanitarian operation may signal a change of policy in the offing.
Israel has tried its best until now to keep itself apart from the Middle East, and from the Syrian conflict in particular. This stance, which has popular support in Israel, mirrors that of the United States. In early 2013 the United States told Syria that it had crossed a red line by using chemical weapons and threatened military action, but then abandoned this idea and reverted to “leading from behind.” Others, such as Turkey, Qatar, Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, have taken a more active stance, supporting various elements of the Islamist opposition.
Israeli NGOs such as Israeli Flying Aid and Hand in Hand with the Syrian Refugees have responded differently. They were the first to recognise the need and opportunity for building a new relationship with the Syrians, and have led a number of humanitarian support activities in Jordan and Turkey and within Syria itself, with a focus on delivering food and medical supplies. Over 1,300 tonnes of aid has so far been delivered. These initiatives have made it possible for Israeli and Syrian groups to work together for the very first time, sometimes publicly. Unfortunately, the Israeli establishment has not replicated these civic actions.
Israel is a prisoner of its own defence—and security-based vision, and has never excelled at diplomatic engagement—especially over the past few months while the entire Israeli diplomatic corps has been on a strike. Yet diplomatic initiatives and humanitarian aid could allow Israel to play a constructive role and gain new allies for the future. The 800 injured Syrians treated in Israel over the past year could prove to be its best ambassadors.
Nir Boms is an associate researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, Tel Aviv University; Asaf Hazani is a member of the Forum for Regional Thought.
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