The View from Herzliya

The View from Herzliya

Iran! Winner of the Egyptian uprising. At least the Israelis think so.


HERZLIYA. IT is a time of huge uncertainty in one of the world’s most volatile regions. For now, Mubarak’s personal rule has passed, but the military, which elevated not only Hosni but also his predecessors, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat to power, remains in charge. The wave of demonstrations, from Algeria to Yemen, continues. Authoritarian regimes there, and in Jordan and Syria, as well as in the Gulf, are afraid of their own revolutions.

Ruling without either a parliament or a constitution, will the Egyptian military keep its promise to supervise the transition to democracy? Will the future regime in Egypt resemble Turkey, where until 2002 the military ensured the secular and multi-party character of the republic, or will the Muslim Brotherhood manage to take over, a la Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran circa 1979?


At the Herzliya Conference (Israel’s flagship national-security event that wrapped up last week) Washington's handling of the Egyptian revolution was often compared with the way Jimmy Carter dealt with the downfall of the Shah. And Barak Obama’s Middle East foreign policy received poor marks. The conference attracted dignitaries such as NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, U.K. Defense Minister Liam Fox, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Alexander Vershbow, former U.S. National Security Advisor General (Ret.) Jim Jones, foreign and finance ministers from the Netherlands, Italy, and the Czech Republic; Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and his nemesis, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, the outgoing Israeli Defense Forces Chief of General Staff, and many others. Israelis were deeply concerned about the inconsistency displayed in the US approach since protestors took to the streets of Cairo. After first declaring the Mubarak regime stable, the White House then hastened to try easing out an octogenarian President who, despite being an authoritarian ruler, had been a trustworthy partner of the United States and Israel for decades.

Turmoil in Egypt and destabilization of secular, pro-Western Middle Eastern states; emergence of a nuclear Iran; blurring of the lines between unconventional, conventional, and low-intensity conflicts; explosion of information challenges in and around battlefields—all of these concerns will increasingly challenge U.S. and regional policymakers and military commanders in the Middle East and beyond.

HERE A stable regime in Egypt is seen as crucial to keeping the 32-year-old Camp David Accords intact. Egypt is also credited with playing a key role in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and closing the Gaza–Egypt border to weapons smuggling. Israeli experts were concerned that the U.S. appeared to decide unilaterally to push Mubarak out instead of engaging in “intimate dialogue between two allies.”

Might the Obama Administration’s inconsistencies in handling the Egyptian regime suggest a speedy disengagement from Israel? Can Israel count on retaining the long-term relationships with its allies, analysts worried. Saudi Arabia expressed similar insecurities.

The majority of speakers at the conference perceived U.S. power in the region as declining. At the same time, the principal non-Arab players, Iran and Turkey, are flexing their muscles. It is little wonder that Israel feels more insecure—and less likely to make concessions – such as a settlement freeze and/or abandoning crucial territory like the strategic Jordan Valley-- demanded by the Obama Administration.

Conference participants also felt prospects for the Middle East peace process were dimmer now. For most of the last two years, the Obama administration failed to convince the Palestinians to negotiate directly with Israel, let alone arrive at a permanent settlement. The Palestinian leadership is now bypassing the Obama Administration, seeking to engage the United Nations instead.

Some experts called for Israel to supplement the strong U.S.–Israeli relationship by reaching out to powers other than the United States, whereas Tzipi Livni, the leader of the main opposition Kadima party and the former Israeli foreign minister, called for a deal with the Palestinians in coordination with Washington. But one must wonder: since such a deal has not materialized so far, how on earth will it occur when Iran, Syria, and Hamas are seen as growing stronger by the day?

PERHAPS, REALLY, Iran is the winner in all of this. General Amir Eshel, head of the Israeli General Staff Planning Division, observed that the Middle East order is defined by three states, none of them Arab: Iran, Turkey, and Israel. Rafi Barak, the Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, pointed out that China, Brazil, and even Russia have gotten more involved in the Middle East, while Washington is preparing to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq, according to some experts, is becoming more Islamist and more Iran-influenced. All this creates a multi-crisis (not multi-polar) environment, Barak said.

Iran, like Egypt, was front and center at the conference. Experts credited Tehran with a de facto takeover of Lebanon. Iran has turned Hezbollah and Hamas into semi-states, pushing their legitimacy up, whereas Israel’s legitimacy is under attack. Some speakers, such as Ephraim Halevy, the former chief of the Mossad, said that the United States and Israel “are winning the war” to stop the Iranian nuclear program. Yet others, such as Ephraim Sneh, the former Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense, said that sanctions alone would not suffice. They called for a more robust effort regarding Iran, including a credible military option and outreach to the Iranian people who are sick and tired of the mullah regime.

The rise of Iran and its rush to acquire nuclear weapons shifts the balance of power in the Gulf and beyond, as Tehran gains power to strike European capitals from Athens to Moscow by 2014. U.S. intelligence assessments recognize that Iran could gain intercontinental-ballistic-missile capacity by 2015. Iran is becoming “the neighborhood bully,” said Tzipi Livni, adding, “Iran should not be allowed to become a nuclear power."

Iran uses proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon, to establish a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, defeating its traditional rival Saudi Arabia. Iran undermines the Palestinian Authority through support of Hamas and meddles in Egypt’s revolution by expressing support for Islamist forces. This is why for General (Ret.) Danny Rothschild—the Herzliya conference organizer and a former commanding officer of the Israeli Military Intelligence—pragmatic Arab states, Israel, and the West need to boost their conventional military capabilities now as a means of countering long-term threats from Tehran (everything is not about nuclear weapons it would seem)

A NEW battlefield awaits. Due to international pressure (a lesson learned from the lengthy and unsuccessful 2006 second Lebanon war), Israel’s future conflicts will have to be shorter and more intensive. Israel still has no effective answer to the threat of 40,000 short-range missiles and rockets deployed in Lebanon and Syria.

Eytan Ben-Eliyahu, the former commander of the Israeli Air Force, suggested that to prevent massive strikes against Israeli civilian targets, Israeli Defense Forces would need to be ready to retaliate against high-value state institutions in Syria (such as military headquarters) and, to lesser degree, in Lebanon. In the future, many confrontations will occur in cyberspace. In fact, Israeli experts say, the lines between cyber-warfare and “3D” operations are increasingly blurred. While speakers avoided discussion of the Stuxnet computer virus attack on Iranian nuclear infrastructure, they viewed WikiLeaks, al-Jazeera leaks of Palestinian negotiations with Israel, and mass mobilization in Tunis and Egypt through the Internet as formidable information-warfare tools. Their importance, according to Israeli and Western experts who spoke at the conference, will only increase. Yet today’s generals, who are in their 40s and 50s, understand this new battle-space far more poorly than their 20-something terrorist adversaries. Several gray-haired generals have admitted that the West needs to play catch-up with terrorists and extremists in using social media. Information, especially social media, is used to mobilize global pubic opinion against U.S. foreign policy, the West, and the Jewish state. They are becoming crucial to Israel’s effort to combat delegitimization from extremist Muslim and leftist organizations worldwide. Similarly, the U.S. is fighting al-Qaeda and other extremists’ massive online presence, including propaganda, recruitment, online training, and even operation management. Yet, despite a 10-year conflict, any number of Americans still lack a clear understanding of who the enemy is. Boaz Ganor, the founder of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and one of the world’s leading experts on counterterrorism, quoted a senior U.S. official, who told him, “A Sharia law state is not necessarily going to be anti-democratic.”

This was the grimmest Herzliya conference I have attended. It provided a chilling panorama of the rising storm in the Middle East almost 10 years after 9/11. Specters of radicalism and the threats of war haunt the region now more than ever. It is incumbent on the United States to look after its long-term interests, listen to friends, read the map, and remember the region’s fractured and bloody history.

Image (c) Barry Hunau