by: Joshua Spurlock, BFP Israel Mosaic Radio
Not all of the questions facing Israel and the West as a result of the instability are negative, but some have the potential to be devastating. From gasoline prices to terrorism, major issues facing elder statesmen in Jerusalem and Washington are being rearranged by 20-year-old protesters in Egypt and elsewhere.
While Tunisia formally set off the unrest in the Middle East, Egypt set the initial standard for just how far the protests could go
. A dictator in power for almost three decades came crashing down in just 18 days. Now it should be noted that former-President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was politically pressured by the West, and his military chose to keep things relatively peaceful rather than fight the protesters. Such circumstances may or may not duplicate themselves in the numerous other Middle Eastern nations facing unrest.
As of print time for this article, the situations in Iran, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, and other nations were still unsettled. Even the ultimate result in Egypt was unclear, as the military had made promises, but possible elections were still expected to be months away. Despite all the uncertainty, there are some potential positives for Israel and the West.
Firstly, dictators are officially on notice. As a resul
t of the turmoil in Egypt, a number of autocratic regimes in the Middle East were at least portraying themselves as open to reform. In Jordan, King Abdullah replaced his cabinet in early February, while Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh promised that same month not to run in his nation’s elections in 2013. That
ultimately could benefit Israel and the West, even in something as basic as improved economics. The West has long argued that poverty helps breed extremism. Wealthy and educated terrorists in the UK have brought that theory into question, but it is possible that economics do have an impact.
Back in 2008, then opposition-leader Benjamin Netanyahu, prior to his return as prime minister, called for an economic peace with the Palestinians to lay the groundwork for true peace. He cited Ireland as an example where economic improvements helped create the conditions that resulted in peace. His own theories have since been tested in the real world, as the Israeli government has sought to encourage improvements in the Palestinian economy, alongside political efforts at pursuing a peace deal. As of press time, that hadn’t brought dramatic change, but Netanyahu’s time in power has been relatively peaceful—keeping in mind there are many factors at work here.
All that to say, a wealthier, happier Egyptian or Yemeni may be less likely to risk that improved life by supporting terrorists. At the very least, a better standard of living couldn’t hurt.
Furthermore, regimes more responsive to—or even elected by—their people could also increase stability in foreign relations in the long-run, even if the short-term is chaotic. There has long been a disconnect between the leaders in Arab nations and their people in terms of how they relate to Israel. Egypt and Jordan formally reached peace with Israel, but not everyone in their nations agreed. That has led to a lot of concern in Israel about the result of the Egyptian revolution.
So, at the very least, Israel and the West could hope that future agreements with democratic governments, instead of with dictators, would be more likely to be supported by the people who elected them, lending them more long-term stability and a wider-ranging impact. More open societies could also improve relations between Israel and the Muslim world. With full access to a variety of opinions and news via the Internet and satellite access, the Muslim world may realize the anti-Israel nonsense being fed them by their former regimes was just that—nonsense.
Lastly, protesters threatening Iran and other unfriendly regimes provide a number of benefits for the West. Those nations will have more than enough internal problems, limiting their resources and focus, and thereby reduce their potential to harm foreign nations. The internal pressure may also make such regimes more susceptible to Western pressure on key issues—such as the Iranian nuclear program. Getting relief from sanctions so as to improve the economy could become more important to the survival of the regime in Tehran than the pursuit of nuclear weapons. And should those regimes fall—the prospect of more moderate leaders taking their places opens up enormous possibilities for greater peace and stability.
Of course, all these positives are taking a “best case” scenario to the Middle Eastern unrest, mixed with some utopian hopefulness. The reality is that dramatically negative changes, which could bring the region closer to war, are also very possible.
The peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt changed the region. No longer isolated and threatened by every border, Israel was able to divert resources and attention elsewhere. It also broke the ice, helping to pave the way for the later peace deal with Jordan and at least the portrayal of being “open” to peace from a number of Arab nations and the Palestinians. That treaty was also costly to Israel, who had to withdraw from the Egyptian Sinai, uprooting settlements in the process. So the prospect that the next Egyptian government could alter or even do away with the 32-year-old treaty has been a major concern to Israel and has even caught the eye of the US. Egypt, a recipient of more than a billion dollars a year in aid from the US, also has a military the Israelis would rather not have to be concerned about again.
But would the next Egyptian government ignore the treaty? That’s hard to say. The Israelis already expressed satisfaction following the Egyptian military’s pledge to uphold the treaty. The military took power following Mubarak’s resignation, but as of press time, it was unclear what long-term role, if any, the military and its loyalists would have in the government. Looking outside the government, concerns regarding the treaty emerged shortly after Mubarak left the scene. Ynet quoted opposition leader Ayman Nour as telling a Lebanese radio station that while Egypt “must respect its agreements,” the treaty with Israel is “a unique issue with unique aspects—the people will decide on this matter.”
Ynet said Nour is considered one of the more liberal opposition members. He did seem to focus more on improving Egyptian “rights” in the peace treaty, which among other things prohibits the Egyptian military from entering the Sinai Peninsula, than returning to a state of war with Israel. Ynet also noted that despite Nour’s history, he ran for president against Mubarak in 2005, so he isn’t a very powerful opposition figure. But Nour isn’t the only one expressing a troubling approach to Israel.
The Jerusalem Post, citing USA Today, said that a coordinator of the April 6 Youth Movement (an Egyptian, pro-democracy, Facebook group) called for the end of natural gas sales to Israel. The Egyptian natural gas currently makes up a sizable minority of Israel’s natural gas, and losing the arrangement would be a potential economic blow.
Then there’s the Muslim Brotherhood, a group with a radical past that could prove to be a dangerous member of a future Egyptian government. And it doesn’t stop in the government. Already the Ma’an News Agency has reported noteworthy violence in the Sinai. If the Egyptian military is primarily distracted by the ongoing turmoil in Egypt-proper, the Sinai could become even more dangerous. Even before Mubarak’s ouster, the Sinai was known for smuggling weapons into Gaza and even a rare rocket attack at Israel or Jordan.
Furthermore, that’s just Egypt. Yemen, where anti-government protests were still raging as of the writing of this article, is a key partner in the US war on terror against Al Qaeda elements in the country. Sunni-led Bahrain, which has a majority of Shia Muslims, is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and has already faced verbal threats by Iranians in the past. What happens if pro-Iranian forces take control there? Even Jordan is not immune to the protests, where the reshuffled cabinet was already creating problems with the nation’s alliance with Israel.
A commentary from Yedioth Ahronot, as translated and summarized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, noted that political tensions were highlighted when the new Jordanian justice minister called in February for the release of a Jordanian that murdered seven Israeli schoolgirls in 1997. While the Israeli newspaper noted that the new prime minister in Jordan is a former ambassador to Israel and that the antagonistic justice minister lacks the power to free the murderer, the incident demonstrates the aforementioned disconnect between regional leaders and their people with regards to Israel.
That anti-Israel, anti-West sentiment amongst the Arab public should be one of the biggest concerns about the political turmoil in the Middle East. While most Westerners should be pleased to see an increase in human rights and encouraged by political reforms in autocratic countries, democracy in the Middle East has a bad history. The Palestinians, for example, elected Hamas, which subsequently took over Gaza less than 18 months later in a bloody coup and later led the coastal strip into a war with Israel. In Lebanon, the Hizbullah terror group used the political system to overthrow the pro-Western government, further raising tensions.
Democracy activist Natan Sharansky, in a lengthy interview with The Jerusalem Post, expressed support for the pro-democracy forces in Egypt, but also noted how he called for key reforms to be put in place for the Palestinians during the last decade to establish a “free society” and “free institutions” before they held elections. He cited the Hamas victory in the Gaza Strip as a prime example of what happens when elections come too soon, and people vote out of fear.
Tragically, many leaders in the Middle East have demonized Israel to their people for years. Now that those same leaders risk being deposed by their people, it seems too much to hope that the indoctrinated masses will suddenly start accepting Fox News and The Jerusalem Post as fact. Israel is the region’s cancer, they’ve been told, and even if protesters realize the Jewish state doesn’t really impact their daily lives as much as their leaders wished them to believe, that doesn’t mean they have warm, fuzzy feelings towards Israel either. And that’s a serious problem when those masses begin electing like-minded leaders.
In the end, the political turmoil in the Middle East has raised many hopes and many fears. Israel and the West have much to gain by the advancement of freedom and democratic values, but blind elections with neither reforms nor support-systems risk electing new tyrants, or at least antagonistic leaders who care little for stability with the West or Israel. What is certain is that the ultimate results are unknown at this point, perhaps more so than at any point in the last three decades. Sometimes the unknown offers hope for a better future, but sometimes it raises fears of a darker one. In this case, it does both.
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