Affairs

Diplomacy

Maghreb focus: The threat to Israel— Israel

Preface

Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak once famously described Israel as “a villa in the jungle”

Conflict

28 February 2011

Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak once famously described Israel as “a villa in the jungle” – a haven of democracy amid a swathe of dictatorial Middle East regimes. But as one revolution after another sweeps through the region, the make-up of the neighbourhood is looking very different.

Yet Jerusalem’s view remains unremittingly grim. Forget democracy, freedom or Facebook – as far as the Israeli establishment goes, this is all about Iran. It sees an arc of events conspiring, partly by accident and partly by design, to boost Iran’s already powerful position in the region. And, says Tel Aviv-based analyst Meir Javedanfar, “unless there is a revolution in Iran and the regime is overthrown, this is indeed going to be the case.”

The changes in Egypt, long a bitter rival of Iran – there’s even a street in Tehran named after Anwar Sadat’s assassin – have hugely weakened the Sunni coalition against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Israeli officials fully expect the terms of the Camp David treaty to be significantly altered in the short term, with some gloomily predicting its complete collapse within just three or four years.

Cairo has already permitted two Iranian ships to pass through the Suez canal, the first to do so since the 1979 Islamic revolution, allowing them to head to Syria for naval exercises. Then there’s the long-range Grad rocket strike from Gaza into Israeli town of Beersheba last week, launched by Iranian proxy Islamic Jihad.

And the fall of Mubarak has undoubtedly emboldened Hamas, seeing in the nascent power of the Muslim Brotherhood a close ally and confident that the Egyptian public will no longer stand for government complicity in the siege on Gaza.

Israeli intelligence reports that arms smuggling through the network of tunnels linking Egypt and Sinai has already tripled – including weapons being smuggled out of the Strip into Sinai, in what is understood to be an attempt to further destabilise the peninsula.

As for Libya, there are dark predictions of tribal conflict and a power vacuum that will allow Islamist training camps to flourish.

In Bahrain, where the Shia majority are protesting against the Sunni monarchy, Israel fears losing not only a relatively friendly Gulf state but one – as Wikileaks revealed – particularly enthusiastic about a possible strike on Iran’s nuclear facility.

Outside the revolutionary ambit, Israeli officials say Lebanon is turning into “Hezbollahstan,” another neighbourhood Iranian proxy, with the Tehran-brokered government formed last year in Iraq seen as part of this trend.

Of course, one might argue that Israel could derail some of these looming troubles by a spot of active diplomacy of its own. “One of the best ways to counter the Iranian influence and the increasing isolation of Israel internationally would be to stop settlement building and move forwards in the peace process,” says Javedanfar.

Currently, however, there seems little appetite in Israel’s political establishment for such bold moves. For them, the villa is becoming a bunker, and the world outside ever more of a threat.

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