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Tensions rise in the Middle East

20 August 2011

5:20 PM

20 August 2011

5:20 PM

The escalating crisis in Gaza and Sinai is worrying. Egypt is to recall its ambassador to Israel after 3 security personnel were killed in confused scuffles after an
Israeli bus was bombed near the Sinai border; the Israeli embassy in Cairo has also been the scene of ill-tempered demonstrations and vandalism. Israel denies responsibility for the three deaths.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian army is also conducting operations against Islamist militants in the increasingly lawless Sinai desert. Finally, the Arab League has called an emergency meeting after Israel retaliated to 30 rocket attacks by
launching stiff operations in Gaza.

This latest smattering of violence will be of great concern to friends of Israel, suggesting that the new political dynamics in the Middle East may revive dormant hostilities with Egypt. By happy
chance, the Isreali defence community discussed these matters at the annual Herzliya conference in February. The Economist’s Clausewitz correspondent attended and reported on the ‘twitchy’ atmosphere and how Israel plans
to contend with new threats. Here’s Clausewitz:

‘Members of the government have taken a vow of silence not to comment, even off the record, on the unfolding situation in Egypt. But if you talk to people here privately, they suggest
there are three possible scenarios. The first (intended to sound incredible) is that Israel’s biggest neighbour will be transformed into a peaceable, pluralist democracy. The second is that
Egypt will become something like Turkey, either with an army-dominated government as in the past or with a government a bit like the present one in Ankara that has a quite a strong Islamist
flavour (either more or less intense, depending on the role within it of the Muslim Brotherhood). The third is that something similar to the Iranian revolution in 1979 is played out “with
dramatic consequences”. If the third scenario were to be realised, the psychological impact on Israel will be such that any conceivable land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians will have
to be accompanied by much more rigorous security arrangements on the ground. That said, the emergence of a moderately Islamist government that remained committed to peace with Israel could, after
the initial shock, prove quite positive.

Perhaps inevitably, the turmoil in Egypt is only entrenching people here in their existing positions. The right is saying that it goes to show how quickly things can change in the unstable
Arab world. Even if you could do a deal with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who anyway only speaks for half the Palestinians, how confident can you be that the peace would hold? For
its part, the pro-peace camp says that the situation in Egypt means that there may be only a narrow window to get a settlement negotiated and that a new urgency is required. Realistically, few
people here expect this Israeli government to do very much given Mr Netanyahu’s dependence on the support of parties ideologically hostile to the whole idea of “land for

Yet neither the possibility of an Egyptian repudiation of the 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel nor the remote prospect of progress on the Palestinian front are the biggest security
concerns among those at the Herzliya. Iran’s nukes are still seen as the overwhelming existential threat to Israel…

… Of more immediate concern even than the menace of a nuclear Iran is the growing threat from Lebanon since Hizbullah’s bloodless coup last month. With up to 50,000 missiles of
increasing accuracy and technological sophistication having been supplied by Syria and Iran, government sources here claim that the Shiite guerrilla force (which for most practical purposes
should now be regarded as Lebanon’s real army) has around four times the missile power it had when it unleashed 4,000 projectiles at Israel during the bloody five-week war in 2006. The
Israeli military believes that Hizbullah has also learned lessons from the conflict in Gaza two years ago and that in any future confrontation IDF soldiers will sustain significantly more
severe casualties.

Despite large investments in anti-missile defences with the help of the Americans, there are fears that Tel Aviv is still vulnerable to attack from salvoes of 200km-range Zelzal II guided
missiles fired from south Lebanon and cruder devices, such as the 50km-range Fajr-5 missile, that could be launched by Hamas from Gaza in the event of hostilities. In a speech yesterday General
Gabi Ashkenazi, the outgoing chief of the IDF general staff, warned that while Hizbullah and Hamas could not take territory, the battlefield had now shifted to the home front. No missile shield
can be fully effective, especially when the missiles fired cost a tiny fraction of the interceptors used to stop them. Israel will still need superior intelligence and the ability to put boots
on the ground to defend itself.

Israelis often feel the need to remind their critical European and American friends that they live in a pretty tough neighbourhood. Special criticism among most of the people you meet at
Herzliya is reserved for Barack Obama. After the row over settlement building, which many Israelis thought was the wrong fight to pick, and what is seen here as shameless flipflopping by the
administration over the fate of Mr Mubarak, the kindest description of the president you will hear in Herzliya is that he is naïve. Others are harsher, saying that he is a serial blunderer
who is presiding over a rapid waning of American power and influence within the region. In particular, there is both puzzlement and anger over what is seen as the very public betrayal of Mr
Mubarak, which, it is claimed, will cause every moderate Arab government to review its security relationship with America. As one source puts it: “They could have told him in private that
his time was up, while sticking outwardly to a position of neutrality. But by saying they supported all the aims of the protesters and telling Mubarak he must go immediately, they took a very
serious, very dangerous risk.”’

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