The Magazine

High Anxiety

Israel’s somber summer—as Syria crumbles, Iran goes nuclear, and the Muslim Brotherhood rides high in Egypt

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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August is supposed to be the time for vacations, but Israelis can’t relax this summer. Their Mediterranean beaches may be as inviting as ever, but when they look north, south, and east their world appears increasingly dangerous.

The Egyptian armored personnel carrier stolen by jihadists on August 5, still sm

The Egyptian armored personnel carrier stolen by jihadists on August 5, still smoking after it was destroyed by the IAF

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Up north, Bashar al-Assad is going down. High officials defect successfully, sneaking their whole families out of the country—as sure a sign that the regime’s counterintelligence is failing as the bomb that was sneaked into a -conference room in July and blew up several top security officials. Israeli officials now applaud Assad’s demise, though for years they sought to negotiate deals with him (and his father before him). At least since Bashar jumped into Iran’s lap over the Iraq war (guiding jihadists into Iraq to help kill Americans) and tried with North Korean help to build a nuclear reactor, more and more Israeli officials have understood that he is no pillar of regional stability. He is instead an important ally of Hezbollah and Iran, and his departure will weaken them both—at just the right time. A Hezbollah that has no ally in Syria, to cover its back and help it rebuild after any conflict with Israel (as it did after the 2006 Lebanon war), is far less likely ever to attack Israel, even if its Iranian sponsors ask it to. Hezbollah’s reliability as “Iran’s second-strike capability” after an Israeli strike at the Iranian nuclear program is therefore much in doubt, giving Israel a freer hand when it considers bombing Iran. In that sense the news up north is good.

The next regime in Syria will be a mess, Israelis believe, but at least it will be a Sunni mess. The country is 75 percent Sunni, and Sunnis will take over the security forces. After Hezbollah’s and Iran’s support for Assad’s bloody repression, now believed to have taken 20,000 Sunni lives, the Sunni inheritors will look to the Gulf states, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan for cooperation and will break with Ayatollah Khamenei in Tehran and Sheikh Nasrallah in Beirut. 

But that’s the end of the good news. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s refusal for 17 months to do much but wring its hands, or more precisely wring Kofi Annan’s hands, about the slaughter in Syria suggests that the United States will have little clout in Damascus when the new crowd takes over. That is one Israeli worry. Israel’s main concern, however, is that a Sunni regime would be dominated by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and would adopt a policy of active hostility toward Israel.

That is bad enough, but if the Brothers come to power in Syria, the Brotherhood in Jordan is likely to feel more wind in its own sails. This the Israelis fear even more, for while Syria has formally been at war with them since 1948, Jordan has been at peace since 1994, and the relationship has been close. So Brotherhood governments in Amman and Cairo, both “reexamining” their peace treaties with Israel, and a Brotherhood government in Damascus threatening to shake up the quiet status quo on the Golan Heights, is one of the many Israeli nightmares. And there is another big Israeli concern: a period of chaos in Syria that can be utilized by the jihadists who have recently arrived there, and by local extremists, to launch attacks on the Golan. So the Israelis are happy to see Assad go, but contemplate the post-Assad period with anxiety.

Events down south in Egypt make them even more anxious. While the new president, Mohamed Morsi, has chosen a largely bland and technocratic cabinet, his intentions remain foggy: What will be the Morsi mix of pragmatism and Brotherhood ideology? How much control will Morsi exercise over a Brotherhood machine he never led and that put him forward for president only after Khairat el-Shater—the Brotherhood’s real leader—was prevented from running? How will Egypt square the Brotherhood’s anti-Israel ideology with the continuing ties between the Egyptian Army high command and the Israel Defense Force?

On Sunday, August 5, a terrorist attack in the Sinai tested all the Egyptian players. A jihadist group operating in Sinai—that is to say, not Brotherhood members but far more radical groups intent on creating a crisis—attempted to storm across the border into Israel and kill as many Israelis as possible. The group attacked an Egyptian border police base, killed 16 policemen, and stole an armored personnel carrier. Good intelligence had put the Israelis on alert, and they stopped the attack at the border and killed the jihadists. But how will Egypt’s new rulers react?

Morsi himself said and did what was required in the first days. He immediately went to northern Sinai (something Hosni Mubarak hadn’t done for years) in the company of Field Marshal Tantawi, the head of the army. Morsi called the killings “traitorous” and “cowardly” and vowed, “Those who carried out the attack will pay heavily.” Egypt immediately closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza, and Hamas has itself clamped down on the smuggling tunnels linking Gaza and Sinai. So much for the plan, desperately desired by Hamas, to open the Sinai/Gaza border; Morsi had previously seemed sympathetic, but he slammed the doors shut after the attack. Morsi also fired the head of Egypt’s intelligence agency, for Egypt had had access to the same intelligence as the Israelis—but did nothing to stop the attack.

More surprising than the initial jihadist strike, which after all was ultimately aimed at Israel, was the further action two days later: The jihadists attacked five security checkpoints in Sinai. This time the army struck back, firing missiles at the jihadists from helicopter gunships and jets—the first time since the 1973 war that the Egyptians had taken such action in the Sinai. Egyptian troops also attacked on the ground in northern Sinai, about 10 miles from Gaza, targeting what they called “insurgent activity” and claiming to kill 20 or so “terrorists” and destroy three armored cars. If this is accurate, it is a measure of the strength of the jihadist presence—not just men and guns, but armored cars that one must assume had previously been stolen from the Egyptian Army or border police (and that the Egyptian government had previously made no effort to recapture). 

The Israeli praise for this action was immediate. Clearly the IDF was given prior notification and is happily sharing intelligence about jihadists in the Sinai with the Egyptian military. But that cooperation is secret, and whatever Morsi’s reaction, the Brotherhood itself took a different line: The initial jihadist attack that killed 16 Egyptians “can be attributed to Mossad,” the Brothers’ webpage announced. The willingness of the Brotherhood to sustain the peace treaty with Israel must be doubted if this is the stance the group will take toward those actually threatening not just Israel but Egypt. 

What’s next? The jihadist attack and the Egyptian Army’s response might be a turning point. Either Egypt’s new president and its army will get serious about security in the Sinai for the first time in years, or they will recoil from a continuing confrontation with Bedouins, criminals, smugglers, jihadists, and Hamas. This latest jihadist attack is in a certain way a gift: What could better clarify the danger posed to Egypt by extremist Islamists than their murder of 16 Egyptians? What could better allow Morsi and the army to stand up to violent extremism? What could better allow the Brotherhood to separate itself from jihadists? The jihadists were never this bold before, never willing to kill so many Egyptian officers, and they have devised this test of the Brothers carefully, for they know that defeating their attacks requires Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. Will Morsi and the Brotherhood countenance such a thing? Will it be allowed even if it is secret and never mentioned? Will they defend the peace treaty with Israel as actually helping their country’s security? Will they even allow themselves to think such a thought? Or will the Brotherhood keep on blaming the Mossad, adhere to its ingrained hatred of Israel, and choose purity of thought over the responsibilities of governing?

Pessimism is rife in Israel. One day of Egyptian Army attacks on jihadists will change nothing, and few believe a persistent campaign to retake control of Sinai is about to begin. And even the good news about army activity in Sinai can contain bad news for Israel. There is already a call from Cairo to lift or at least modify the restrictions in the Egypt-Israel peace treaty on how many soldiers and what kinds of armaments Egypt can place in Sinai. “Reopen the peace treaty with Israel” is an old Brotherhood demand, and it has been loudly repeated all week in Egypt. That demand takes on a clear logic now, with Israel calling for Cairo to retake control of the peninsula and stop terrorism and applauding the attacks of last week. But with Cairo now in the hands of the Brotherhood, how relaxed can Israel feel about acceding to those requests? Is today’s solution tomorrow’s threat? When the Brothers say “reopen the peace treaty,” they don’t mean “let the army move more men to the east,” they mean “gut the relationship with Israel.” 

As the week ended, Morsi’s intentions were impossible to discern, and the Brothers were silent (except on reopening the treaty). The ludicrous claim that the Mossad was to blame had not been repeated by top Brotherhood officials, but ideology—and perhaps sheer hatred of Israel and of Jews—prevented them from acknowledging that Israel and Egypt have a common interest and must cooperate. To say that Israelis are fearful about developments in Egypt hardly begins to convey the depth of their concern.

 If north and south aren’t enough of a threat, the Israelis can always look east to Jordan and worry about the stability of the Hashemite kingdom. Visitors there this year have come away concerned: Criticism of the royal family has reached new heights, the budget deficit is enormous, and the game of tossing out prime ministers one after another in the name of “reform” is getting old. The fundamental issue that blocks real reform remains the fact that a political system without gerrymandering would enhance Palestinian political power at the expense of the Bedouin East Bank tribesmen upon whom the Hashemite rulers depend, just as a more open economy would help industrious and educated Palestinians more than the East Bankers. So the king kicks the can down the road, and the Israelis—who have an intimate security relationship with Jordan—cheer each kick and pray he continues to survive this game.

Further east is Iran, where as the summer ends so does even the pretense that diplomacy will solve the nuclear problem. The talks between EU and Iranian deputy negotiators on July 24 achieved so little that no date has been set for another effort—at the deputy level, higher, or even for lower “technical level” talks. The U.N. General Assembly meets on September 13, so one can predict some sort of P5+1 meeting there; the six governments will presumably refuse to announce that talks are over lest they seem to justify an Israeli strike. All the publicly available evidence (including leaks) suggests that Iran is accelerating its nuclear work, and the spinning centrifuges produce more enriched uranium every day. Despite the Obama administration’s refusal to admit that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, an amazing parade of American officials made their way there this summer: Burns, Panetta, Brennan, Clinton, Donilon, and (rumor has it) others on unannounced visits. All presumably carried the same message: Don’t do it! (Or at least: Don’t do it before the election!)

Whether Israel’s window for hitting the Iranian nuclear targets is really closing now or can safely be held open into next year is widely debated, especially by people who don’t have the facts. But they can be forgiven, for this is less a factual question than a judgment call. Where Iran’s program stands and how fast it can move forward, what Israel can expect to destroy and whether it can expect to destroy less 3 or 6 or 12 months from now, whether Israel’s missile defenses are improving faster than Iran’s missiles, and whether a President Romney or a reelected President Obama might actually destroy Iran’s nuclear sites in 2013 or 2014—these are not mathematical calculations. Add to these some local color in the Israeli debate: questions like “Do you trust Bibi or [defense minister Ehud] Barak?” or “What does General Gantz [the IDF chief of staff] really think?”

The school year begins in Israel on August 26, though life will not really go back to normal until after the High Holidays, which this year run from September 16 to October 9. Then the Knesset returns for its winter session, when it is supposed to address a bevy of tough issues, like the national budget and “Tal Law” regulating whether ultra-Orthodox Jews must serve in the military. Between now and then the government of Bashar al-Assad may be gone and the bloodshed may be even greater, Israel may have bombed Iran and itself been hit by Iranian missiles or terrorism, and Egypt’s new Brotherhood government may have decided that blaming Israel for everything is a lot easier than cleaning up Sinai. So “back to normal” after the religious holidays is a relative concept this year. Ehud Barak said a few months ago that “only” 500 Israelis would die in an Iranian missile attack after Israel struck the Iranian nuclear sites; IDF officials were later quoted as saying the number could be “as low as” 300. That kind of debate—just how many will be killed in the next few months if Israel needs to hit Iran’s nuclear sites?—is a reminder of what “normal” sometimes means in the Jewish state.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

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