The new regional ballgame
By Amotz Asa-El
On the face of it, diplomatic commotion the morning after Binyamin Netanyahu’s return to power followed familiar patterns of cordiality with neighbours and affection with allies amid continued friction with veteran enemies. However, in reality, the Middle East’s shifting sands now make it difficult to recall the one with which Netanyahu grappled last time he was at Israel’s helm, from 1996 to 1999.
Initially all seemed to be following familiar scripts. President Shimon Peres was hosted in the White House where President Barack Obama exuded warmth while expressing his admiration for Israel’s elder statesman and his pragmatism. Washington’s announcement soon afterwards, that it decided to extend by a year the Bush Administration’s sanctions on Syria, also created an impression of business as usual.
Yet nothing is as usual.
On the American front, signs are growing that Obama is intent on stopping Israel from acting unilaterally in Iran. According to reports, the White House sent to Jerusalem, Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, to personally convey this message to Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
At the same time, up in the Taurus Mountains, Turkey and Syria have held joint military manoeuvres, a prospect that was unthinkable during Netanyahu’s previous premiership. Damascus and Ankara had long been adversaries, the former claiming ownership to the Alexandretta region in southeastern Turkey, while the latter accused Syria of helping Turkey’s Kurdish rebels. Last decade, tensions between the two neighbours nearly boiled over several times, most memorably when Turkey momentarily blocked the Euphrates River’s flow into Syria.
All that was well before the rise to power of Turkey’s current, religiously inspired government. Now, what began with its unpredicted refusal to allow American passage to northern Iraq during the 2003 invasion, has been gradually developing into a slow but steady drift away from Turkey’s post-Ottoman appreciation for all things Western, from culture to diplomacy. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s public attack on President Shimon Peres during January’s Davos Summit was one such reminder, as are his repeated attempts to hammer at Turkey’s secularist constitution, but the manoeuvres with Syria are a much more ominous move from an Israeli standpoint. Coupled with Turkey’s misgivings concerning international sanctions on Iran, with which it shares a border, this means that a pillar of the Middle East’s post-colonial order is shaking.
All this has been unfolding while Iran reportedly deployed ground-to-air and ground-to-sea missile batteries in places where it fears an approaching attack, and while Israel prepared to hold in June an unprecedented countrywide missile-raid drill, wherein the entire population will be requested to step into bomb shelters.
Iran is also not the same country it was a decade ago, as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the leader whose anti-Israeli rhetoric has been worse than all his predecessors, only rose to power in 2004.
At the same time, the sense of perplexity inspired by Iran is now shared by a set of Arab governments that see in Teheran’s behaviour a threat to their political stability. Chief among these is Egypt, which sees in Iran a threat to its regional sway.
Egypt’s predicament became dramatically exposed in April, when it announced it had arrested in the Sinai Desert what it described as a spy ring that was allegedly prepared to attack Egyptian targets and had gathered information on traffic in the Suez Canal. Cairo said, formally and loudly, that the ring was dispatched by Hezbollah. For its part, the Lebanese-based Shi’ite militia admitted its role, and explained its target was Israel.
The Egyptians were unimpressed – not to say, flabbergasted. The idea that its soil would be used by foreigners in such an illicit way, regardless of its purposes, motivations and byproducts, is intolerable for a regime that is always on guard lest its population of 75 million become restless. Even more alarming from Egypt’s viewpoint is the prospect of terror on the Suez Canal, which last year brought Cairo US$4.5 billion in revenues, nearly a fifth of Egypt’s overall exports.
The canal is a strategic cornerstone of the Egyptian economy, second in its importance only to the Nile. The regime therefore sees in the spy ring’s work an attempt to threaten the Egyptian economy, national security and political stability.
Moreover, traffic in the canal, which had boomed until last year to encompass 7.5% of global maritime commerce, has since plunged by more than 20%, not only because of the global meltdown, but also because of the piracy that is raging off the coasts of Somalia. Fearing the pirates themselves and the increased fees insurers charge vessels sailing through the Horn of Africa, a growing number of ships prefer to avoid Somalia by traveling between Asia and Europe via the Cape of Good Hope. That means avoiding not only Somalia but also Suez.
The Egyptians, therefore, have reason to see themselves trapped in a strategic Bermuda Triangle formed by guerillas in Lebanon, diplomats in Teheran and pirates in Somalia, all of whom are inspired by Islamism. Add to all this the Islamist character of the Mubarak regime’s main opposition at home, and you get an Egyptian recognition that not only its regional hegemony, but indeed its livelihood and security are at stake. And so, while the Iranian threat to Israel grows by the day and the strategic harmony with Turkey looms dented, a new strategic common cause between Israel and Egypt is developing against all odds.
As things have unfolded, it no longer matters to what extent, if any, Iran was directly involved in potentially subversive action in Egypt. What matters is that Egypt now suspects Iran as it never did before, and cannot afford to have the rest of the Arab world consider a future shift in regional hegemony from Cairo to Teheran. The knowledge throughout the Arab world that Iran is challenging the UAE’s sovereignty of Persian Gulf islands, and that it is interfering in Lebanon’s parliamentary election scheduled for June 7, makes Arabs take notice of Egypt’s ostensible inaction in the face of what some of them see as a non-Arab power’s meddling in Arab affairs. Hezbollah’s expected gains in that election are likely to intensify this concern.
This growing Arab irritation with Iran is apparently the context in which Israeli jets reportedly attacked an Iranian arms convoy in Sudan in January. If indeed accurately reported, such an attack enjoyed at least tacit Egyptian approval. Now, with the arrested spy ring allegedly also caught measuring distances from Hamas-controlled Gaza City to potential Egyptian targets in the northern Sinai, the Mubarak regime finds itself facing with Israel a common enemy.
The common cause is such that Egypt even quietly shares Israel’s disgruntlement in the face of the Obama Administration’s decision to launch a dialogue with the Iranian regime. During Netanyahu’s trip to Washington on May 18, President Obama did stress his understanding of Israeli concerns on this score, and promised that “we’re not going to have talk forever. We’re not going to create a situation in which the talks become an excuse for inaction.” Although this has not been officially reported, Netanyahu likely added Egypt’s concerns to Israel’s as he argued in the Oval Office that the Iranian threat to the international system’s stability is such that treating it must precede all other issues – including the Palestinian problem, where movement, even according to Netanyahu’s opponents, can only proceed so fast and so far.
From the Israeli viewpoint, now quietly backed by Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, Iran must be contained, one way or another, or it will throw its weight around in a way that will in due course threaten all of the region’s pro-Western governments. The big deadline all currently await is the June 12 presidential election in Iran. No one seems prepared to predict this poll’s results. However, in case of an Ahmadinejad victory and a consequent impression that post-election Iran is the same one that the world has seen over the past five years, if Washington remains even then unperturbed in its pursuit of appeasement, Obama will likely be hearing about it. And not only from Israel, but also from some of its neighbours, even if they will leave it to Israel to say loudly what they themselves prefer to say discreetly.
This is not to say there is regional support for an attack on Iran. Anti-Iranian Arab regimes would prefer tightened sanctions, and the latest talk is of blocking Iran’s importation of refined oil – which Teheran finds necessary on a large scale due to the Islamist regime’s failure to develop its own refineries during its thirty years in power.
Back in 1958, David Ben Gurion conceived the so-called “Periphery Strategy”, whereby Israel cultivated strategic relations with a ring of non-Arab neighbours, namely Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia, as well as assorted minorities that were either non-Arab or non-Muslim. At the time, each of these was alarmed, for its own reasons, by then Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser’s meddling in other countries’ internal affairs and inciting the masses against their leaders. Now the tables have been turned, with Egypt embodying the existing order and Iran representing chaos. Israel’s imperative, however, is much the same as it was half-a-century ago: manoeuvre within the Middle East’s perennially shifting sands.