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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?

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