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Israelis Await New Government Amid Old Security Perils

Israelis Await New Government Amid Old Security Perils

By Peter Berkowitz - January 4, 2013

TEL AVIV -- Election season in Israel has brought the usual jockeying for power; an unusually clumsy making, unmaking and remaking of potential post-election coalitions; and, with the assistance of Israel’s merciless TV and radio funnymen and -women, much comic relief.

In the minds of most Israelis, however, there is little suspense about the most likely result of the early elections called for Jan. 22 by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: After three years as head of the current right-wing government, Netanyahu will get the opportunity to form a new government, courtesy of Israeli voters.

There is also little uncertainty about the daunting national security challenges that will occupy the new Netanyahu led-government in 2013.

In conversations with a dozen senior figures in the Israeli national security establishment, including several currently serving in the government, the same three themes kept arising: the increasing Islamization of the region, de-legitimization of Israel in the international arena, and Iran’s pursuit of nuclear arms.

In a recent column marking the second anniversary of the Arab Spring, Amos Harel, widely respected military correspondent and defense analyst for the Israeli daily Haaretz, made an eye-catching observation in a newspaper that leans decidedly left and rarely misses an opportunity to criticize Israel’s right-of-center prime minister. “From an Israeli perspective,” he wrote, “it would appear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial reading of the so-called Arab Spring was closer to reality than that of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders.”

To be sure, as Harel noted, dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have been ousted, and the dictator in Syria -- who, to crush rebellion, has butchered approximately 45,000 fellow citizens -- appears to be losing his grip on power.

However, even in Tunisia and Egypt, where elections have taken place, the Arab Spring has created or intensified political instability, resulted in worsened economic conditions, and led directly to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organization that seeks to ground political authority in traditional Islamic religious law. This is more or less as Netanyahu and the national security establishment in Israel warned two years ago, even as Obama and European leaders celebrated the supposed emergence of freedom in the Arab world.

Israel’s leaders understand well that as the Middle East’s sole liberal democracy, Israel has a strong interest in the spread of freedom and democracy in the region. But while Israelis cast their gaze beyond their borders, they see a paucity of groups and leaders committed to freedom and a tightening of an Islamic belt around them.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah rules absolutely in southern Lebanon and dominates the Lebanese government. The Iranian-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, whose days most experts in Israel believe are numbered, could well be followed by the ascent to power in Syria of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Pro-western King Abdullah of Jordan confronts a restive population, 70 percent of whom are Palestinian in origin, along with a rising tide of Islamic sentiment and activism among his people. If he were to fall, the most probable result would be an Islamist state -- with a standing army and a modern air force -- on the east bank of the Jordan River.

On Israel’s other flank, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is working to consolidate power under an Islamist constitution. Iranian-funded weapons continue to flow to Hamas in Gaza through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula for use against Israeli civilian populations. Most knowledgeable observers in Israel believe that if elections were held in the West Bank tomorrow, Hamas would win.

Not all the news is bleak, however. Assad’s demise in Syria would deal a devastating blow to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to its patron Iran by destroying a crucial link in the Shiite axis Tehran has been constructing from the Persian Gulf to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is weaker than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In Jordan, King Abdullah thus far has played his cards well at home, and he enjoys strong if quiet support from Israel even as the pro-Western gulf monarchies understand Jordan’s vital importance to regional stability. In Cairo, Morsi has affirmed his support for peace with Israel and showed a pragmatic streak in brokering the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas that ended Israel’s November 2012 Pillar of Defense operation.

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at www.PeterBerkowitz.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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