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Israeli Eyes Peeled on Arab Turmoil

Prime Minister Netanyahu: 'We Cannot Be Certain All Peace Agreements Will Be Honored Therefore They Must Be Accompanied By Security Arrangements On the Ground'

Upheavals In Tunisia & Lebanon Indicate Volatility Of Arab World - A Strategic Factor In Israel's Decision Making

Jordan & Egypt Announce Steps To Guarantee Price Controls Over Basic Commodities For Low Income Sector Of Population

photo: Erik Pitti

 Israel's Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has reacted swiftly to the sudden upheaval in Tunisia and the threat of a new civil war in Lebanon, Israel's northern neighbor, where Hezballah, an Iranian proxy is threatening to take overall control of the state. The shock waves are still reverberating throughout the entire Middle East and are likely to do so for some time to come. Iraq was formerly the epicenter, now Tunisia the quiet state on the Mediterranean that welcomed Israeli tourists, has become a new focus of turmoil. Its tyrannical President Ben Ali was toppled by thousands of citizens who took to the streets ending his regime of twenty three years. Meanwhile 'Lebanon is Lebanon'. The Sunni-Shiite, Christian and Druze ethnic tensions have again escalated after a UN inquiry has found Hezbollah guilty of assassinating former Sunni Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Analyst David Essing has this assessment of how the recent developments may affect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's strategic outlook.

 For the Israeli government, the lesson of the sudden and dramatic events in Tunisia and Lebanon was clear. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told his cabinet: 'Israel cannot count on the stability of Arab governments or be certain that peace accords signed with them would be honored. Therefore peace treaties must be accompanied by security arrangements on the ground'. And he added that such security arrangements in place would help guarantee the peace accord would not be violated in the future. This then is the baseline for the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians and for the other potential partner of Syria. However the events in Tunisia and Lebanon have served to reinforce this position that is a sine qua non by Israeli leaders of all political persuasions. At a recent closed door session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, Netanyahu made a surprising comment about the possibility of an Islamist threat to Israel emanating from its eastern border with Jordan. Netanyahu noted that after the U.S. evacuation from Iraq, Iran might expand its influence in Iraq which in turn could turn into a forward base for exporting subversive activity in neighboring Jordan. From there it was just over the Jordan River to penetrate the West Bank. Netanyahu's conclusion was that it was critical for Israel to exert security control over the Jordan Valley basin to prevent Iranian subversion from Israel's eastern frontier. (There is already the Iranian precedent of Hezbollah on Israel's northern border and Hamas in Gaza).

What has all this to do with Tunisia? Simply this - Jordan, followed in Egypt's footsteps and signed a peace treaty with Israel which it honors in every way and Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom go back a long way. In the Six Day War of 1967, Jordan attacked Israel from the West Bank, after Egypt's President Nasser had telephoned King Hussien, informing him that Israel's Air force had been wiped out. But after losing the West Bank in the battle, Hussein changed course and even appealed to the U.S. for Israel to intervene against the Syrian threat to invade Jordan in 1970. Syrian tanks had crossed into Jordan coming in support of the Palestinian guerrillas, who were virtually threatening to overthrow the Hashemite Kingdom. Today, Palestinians are a majority in Jordan and are estimated to comprise over 60% of the kingdom's population. One day, after the Tunisian revolution, Jordan's Prime Minister Samir Rifai called on cabinet ministers to ensure that price controls were enforced on basic commodities. Jordan also canceled a former government decision to raise the price of dairy products by 9%! Egyptian officials announced there was no need to enforce additional security steps to guarantee price controls in that country. So Israel's two neighbors who made peace got the message from Tunisia, where for the first time in an Arab state, 'an intifada of the unemployed' has toppled an authoritarian regime.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

As for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he recently stated that he would never agree to any Israeli presence, military or otherwise, on the territory of a future Palestinian state on the West Bank. But if anything, the revolution in Tunisia and the turmoil in Lebanon, will stiffen Israel's demand for firm security arrangements in place on the West Bank in any future negotiations. Likud Minister Silvan Shalom has also said that the current instability in Tunisia, Lebanon, Sudan and Iran have put paid to the old bugaboo that the Israeli - Palestinian dispute is the root of all evil in the Middle East. It was now clear, for all who wish to see, that none of these burning issues have anything to do with Israel.

This principle of security arrangements on the ground has always been applied by former Israeli governments in the peace making process. For example, Israel returned 'every grain of sand' as demanded by President Anwar Sadat, but in return the Egyptian leader agreed to Prime Minister Menachem Begin's demand that the de facto security border would be pulled back two hundred kilometers to the Suez Canal. The Sinai peninsula is demilitarized to this very day eliminating the threat of another Egyptian surprise attack on the Jewish state. In peace contacts with Syria, Israeli leaders have also insisted that Damascus must demilitarize the Golan Heights, agree to early warning stations on Mount Hermon and sever hostile alliances with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran. Syrian President Bashar Assad and his father Hafez have insisted that their peace treaty must provide all that Egypt received, first and foremost a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights. But will Syria of today or the West Bank Palestinian leadership accept the type of security arrangements agreed by Egypt back in 1979? The slogan of 'peace will bring security to Israel' has long gone by the board and In Israel it is perceived as no more than a pipe dream that is totally out of touch with Middle East reality. Reading between the lines, Prime Minister Netanyahu has reiterated that Arab governments may be here today and gone tomorrow, will all that implies for preserving peace agreements.

But Prime Minister Menachem Begin's insistence on solid security arrangements have stood the test of time. Jordan's King Abdullah preserves a true peace with Israel and prevents any hostile actions from his borders. But even Egypt is now in the throes of a leadership succession with the possibility that Hosni Mubarak's son will soon succeed him. In Syria, the late Hafez Assad leader of the minority Alewite sect passed on the presidency to his son Bashar. The power elites in both these countries as well the royal court of Jordan's King Abdullah have obviously been shaken by the Tunisian precedent.

Then there is Lebanon's, Israel's northern neighbor which now faces a Hezbollah that is Iranian takeover. And then there's the Palestinians - the Palestinian Authority has rejected terrorism while the other half comprised of Hamas controlled Gaza as well as the Palestinian 'diaspora' in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere have signed on to Iran's pledge 'to wipe Israel off the map'. It is fair to say that on the basis of past experience and current circumstances, most Israelis concur with the axiom that 'security will bring peace' and not that 'peace will bring security' in the Middle landscape of instability.

David Essing

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