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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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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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