Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 16 – 23 August 2013

Conflicts Forum

Perhaps the most significant event this week was the writing of an article. It was penned by the leading Israeli military analyst, Alex Fishman, in the Hebrew Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday.  It has been carefully read in the region, and in the US too, particularly since the highly-respected Fishman is the veteran military correspondent of this leading Israeli newspaper, and is known for the quality of his sources.

Fishman flatly states that Israel has entered into a state of “diplomatic emergency”: From the PM down, Israel is waging a ‘desperate diplomatic battle’ in Washington in order to undo the American antagonism towards Sisi and ‘the generals’.  This characterization of near panic by Fishman is no flight of ‘literary license’.  We see from parallel reporting in the Hebrew press, that instructions have been passed to key Israeli Ambassadors, warning bluntly that the situation in Egypt may flare into having a ‘dire’ impact on Israel.  The official message warns that Israel therefore cannot stand aloof, as the fragility of the Egyptian government and the deteriorating economy, requires and demands that the Army be allowed to restore security in Egypt [i.e. that Europe and America should facilitate the army in this role].  Fishman’s warning is that any US antagonistic reaction to the coup ultimately will explode onto Israel. America’s poor handling of the situation, he says, has inflamed all sides in the Egyptian arena into a vying in their desire “hurt anything that symbolizes America – and that includes Israel”.  Already, he notes, the liberal/secular opposition are massing signatures insisting on Egypt’s resiling from the Camp David accords.   In the meantime, Fishman suggests, Egypt is approaching – or he speculates may already have passed – its own ‘Syria moment’ [the moment when initially manageable protest, metamorphosed into armed conflict].  “No one is talking about a civil war in Egypt at present. The gains made by the Egyptian army against the Muslim Brotherhood have been tactical in nature. Neither side has chalked up a decisive victory, and both are hunkering down in their positions.”  “The forecast in Israel”, he writes,  “is that Egypt is entering into a lengthy internal low-intensity conflict (riots, terrorism) that heralds a period of continued instability in which it will be impossible to administer the country properly, there will be no foreign investments and the tourism industry will remain paralyzed. The result of that will be a situation of economic decline that will gradually worsen, and Egypt will be dependent on the depth of the pockets of the regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. To feed 85 million mouths from donations over time is not a solution that will rehabilitate the Egyptian economy and entrench the current regime”.

In a follow-up article on 20 August entitled “Eventually it will engulf us”, Fishman specifically ties the ‘massacre of 25 Egyptian security forces on the previous day’ to the decision by the Egyptian Army to withdraw its special, anti-terrorist forces from Sinai – fearing the prospect of an attack on shipping in the Suez Canal.  The Special Forces from Sinai were re-deployed to Port Said.  Once again, Fishman mourns a security vacuum that had been created in Sinai, and which was immediately filled by the jihadists.  Unless the Egyptian command can quickly contain the situation, he forecasts that “the fire will spread – not only in the direction of what remains of the Egyptian Army in Sinai – but also in the direction of the border with Israel too”.

Another significant article this week was an interview with Ephraim Halevy, a former director of Mossad, by Yossi Melman published in Sof Hashavua.  It echoes Fishman’s theme of a rift in thinking opening up between the US and Israel: This time it is not about Egypt; but concerns the prospect of an implosion of Israel’s credibility vis-à-vis America, but in respect to Iran.  Halevy, a past director of Mossad and a former National Security Adviser, candidly points out the contradictions to Israel’s Iran policy:  On the one hand, Israel says that sanctions are not working; but insists on more (whereas America thinks sanctions have helped shape the Rowhani mandate, Halevy points out). Similarly Israel now says that the Iranian President who won more than 50% of the vote is unimportant, and only the Supreme Leader counts in the nuclear file [a reversal from earlier, when Israel cast the then President Ahmadinejad as the malevolent kingpin].  “But”, asks Halevy, if Rowhani “is so unimportant”, as claimed, why then does Israel devote so much effort to demonizing him as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’?  In Halevy’s opinion, by adopting this approach, Israel is making itself redundant in the negotiations between Iran and the West: “Israel is basically saying from the outset that the negotiations are not important, and that the Iranians, no matter what, will not give up the nuclear program, because this [the nuclear programme] has always been in [Iran’s] national interest— even under the Shah – and [that therefore] in general, it doesn’t matter who is in power in Tehran”. He continues, “And then there is no point to negotiations, [because] they are doomed to failure.”  Halevy’s point here, however, is that this is not what the Americans think  — that there is no point to negotiations with Rowhani. And  Israel risks diverging from, and ‘losing America on this issue:  “Is it in Israel’s interest to disclose, at this early stage, even before negotiations have begun, that there is a rift between us and our ally the US?” he asks rhetorically.

Both these Israeli expressions of concern seem related to certain Israeli misgivings quite widely reported in the Hebrew press.  The initial quiver of Israeli anxiety and anger sprang from out of the EU’s declared intention to formalize earlier policy decisions in respect to trade originating from the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs).  Israeli press reporting suggests that Netanyahu was worried not so much by the fact of the EU de-legitimisation per se, which will not much hurt Israel, but that any such international de-legitimisation would weaken Netanyahu’s scope to mobilise the EU and the US in his ‘crusade’ for military action against Iran.  Other Israelis had a different concern: the so-called ‘peace process’ was supposed precisely to inoculate Israel from any such BDS-type moves (as ‘the Process’ had hitherto been deemed sacrosanct) – yet here was the EU acting in this vein – and at the very moment that Kerry was launching his initiative.  This episode seemed to say to them that Israel’s immune system was weakening – and was not at all what it used to be.  And this effectively was Halevy’s leitmotiv too:  Several Israeli reports imply that Netanyahu’s main – perhaps only – motive in engaging in the Kerry ‘Peace Process’ is precisely to strengthen Israel’s hand to be able to lobby hard on Iran – especially during Obama’s ‘lame duck’ phase, after the mid-term Congressional elections, when Netanyahu can wave around the ‘stick’ of an ‘independent Israeli attack’ with somewhat more operational credibility.  But Halevy was saying that this simply won’t work either – to blithely assume that it is sufficient for Israel simply to engage in a ‘peace process’ in order to buy the ensuing legitimacy to threaten Iran simply won’t do:  the Americans are thinking differently.  The old (inconsistent) rhetoric is insufficient.  In Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Kerry, Kerry effectively stood Netanyahu’s ‘peace process’ assumption on its head.  In stead of the ‘process’ awarding Israel ‘brownie points’ and a greater ‘license’, Kerry said the opposite – that if Israel does not come to terms with the Palestinians – it will face de-legitimisation – adding, for emphasis, “on steroids”.  What most shocked the Israeli commentariat is that Kerry omitted all of the de rigeur addenda about the US’s abiding commitment to Israel’s security, etc., etcetera.  In brief, Fishman’s has been giving a very subtle warning:  most of his countrymen might be ecstatic at the ‘hammer of the Brothers’ (Sisi) coming to power in Egypt, but they should not forget just how existentially fragile are Israel’s friends (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan) at this time, and that fragile friends are likely to be fickle friends – especially towards Israel – at a moment precisely when gaps are opening between those friends and the US.  The point which Kerry and the EU seem to be saying is that Israel can no longer expect any special favours – simply for agreeing to participate in ‘process’, for process’ sake alone.  Something is shifting here …

A perspective from Tehran:

The general consensus in political circles here is that the Muslim Brotherhood has ruined a great historical opportunity in Egypt. In fact, for many in Iran the current situation in Egypt is not particularly surprising. Since February 2011, Iranians have been warning Muslim Brotherhood officials to no avail that there could not have been a real revolution unless the “deep state” had been completely removed from power. Iranian interlocutors with the Muslim Brotherhood were also skeptical of the organization’s naive trust of the United States, their deference to corrupt oil-rich dictatorships, their effective inaction regarding Palestine, and their flirting with Salafi extremists and Takfiris, thereby alienating many Egyptians.

Nevertheless, most Iranian analysts believe that Egypt cannot now make any meaningful progress without including the Muslim Brotherhood, but that the Muslim Brotherhood must also come to realize that its extremist views and immature politics have not only alienated leftists and nationalists, but have also alienated much of the country’s religious community. Unless all sides come to this recognition, the future for Egypt looks dark.

While Saudi Arabia and its allies are currently pushing hard for the annihilation of the Muslim Brotherhood, senior political figures in Iran believe that the Saudi regime is driving itself into a very dangerous situation: Its policies have created immense hostility among the general public in all important neighboring countries at a time when the ruling family is nearing a potential succession crisis. Already as a result of recent Saudi interventions and events in Egypt, both the Turkish government and Hamas have begun moving towards improving ties with the Islamic Republic of Iran.


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One Comment

  1. CB wrote:

    Great article. Thanks.

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