Editorial: A New Neighborhood

What a year 2011 has been so far in the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia’s dictator of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has fled to Saudi Arabia. Hosni Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 30 years, was pushed aside and now lives quietly in Sharm el-Sheikh. Muammar Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya since he carried out a military coup almost 42 years ago at the age of 27, has lost control of parts of the country and could still be toppled.

Across the region, protests have erupted against leaders who intend to rule for life. The question many commentators are asking is: Who’s next to fall? The United States is closely following events in the region to see how its interests in one of the most important regions in the world will be affected. And while Israel wishes for free and open societies to emerge in Arab countries, the Jewish state must prepare for the possibility that tension with its neighbors could grow.

Indeed, when the United States and Israel observe the Middle East today, the two allies cannot make the same assumptions about security and stability that they could a decade ago or even a year ago. The durability of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and the quiet along the Israeli-Jordanian border—pillars of Israel’s security and American interests in the region—can no longer be taken for granted.

Even before the recent unrest, the Israeli security establishment had much to worry about. Hizballah has dramatically rearmed since its war against Israel ended in 2006 and now has an estimated 45,000 rockets in its arsenal. Hizballah and its allies took over the Lebanese parliament in January and a Hizballah-designated prime minister is trying to form a new government.

Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip; terrorists there recently fired Grad rockets into Beersheba, one of Israel’s largest cities. Syria has missiles that can strike anywhere in Israel. Most worrisome of all is Iran, which continues to try to militarize its nuclear program and increase its long-range missile capabilities.

For decades, though, Israel has not had to worry about Egypt and Jordan, two former foes. Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 that led to the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula. And in 1994, Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, giving the Jewish state peace along its longest border.

Egypt’s future, of course, remains a big unknown. (See previous NER editorial for background on Egypt.) The Egyptian military, which is in charge of day-to-day affairs during the current transition period, has affirmed its support for the peace treaty.

But not everybody considers the treaty sacrosanct, as Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, noted in a recent New York Times op-ed. The Kefaya democracy movement, for example, once circulated a petition to nullify the peace treaty. A spokesman for the April 6 Youth Movement recently demanded the halting of Egyptian natural gas shipments to Israel, which would cut off 40 percent of Israel’s supply. And an opposition leader, Ayman Nour, recently declared that “the era of [the 1978] Camp David [agreement] is over.”

The biggest worry is the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest, largest and best-organized Islamist movement. Its slogan is simple: “Islam is the solution.” The Brotherhood believes that it is illegitimate for a non-Muslim state to exist within any territory that was once ruled by an Islamic empire. Therefore, the Brotherhood opposes Israel’s existence as a matter of religious doctrine. (Members refer to Spain, once governed by Muslims, as al-Andalus, and fantasize that an Islamic empire will once again reach the Iberian Peninsula.) Top Brotherhood officials have repeatedly called for the abrogation of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

What this means is that while Israel sees its peace treaty with Egypt as the foundation of its security in a volatile region, the Jewish state must now take into account the possibility that Egypt’s continued adherence to the treaty can no longer be taken for granted.

Then there is Jordan. Could the Hashemite Kingdom experience the type of change that Egypt has? It’s impossible to say for sure. King Abdullah II dismissed his cabinet and prime minister last month in a surprise move meant to calm growing street protests. Demonstrators have called for further reforms; some have even called for a new constitutional monarchy with reduced power for the king. (The 49-year-old Abdullah has ruled since his father, King Hussein, died in 1999; Hussein became king in 1952 when he was 17-years-old.)

Any change in Jordan would, at a minimum, ensure that Israeli defense planners have no time to sleep. The four countries bordering Israel (not including Gaza and the West Bank) would be either openly hostile or considering a shift away from Israel and the West.

In the meantime, Iran is watching as pro-Western regimes face an uncertain future. To test Egypt’s intentions—and to see how the United States and Israel would react—Iran sent two naval ships through the Suez Canal. It was the first time since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution that Iranian warships passed through the canal. Such provocations are likely to continue.

American policy in the Middle East and Israel’s security situation were challenging enough before the recent tumult in the region began in January. Now, with uncertainty in Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere, Washington and Jerusalem have much more to worry about. BACK TO TOP