By Ira Sharkansky
Israel is currently facing two especially delicate issues.
We’re hearing about a New Middle East. This is not the one that Barack Obama and his supporters saw coming out of his Cairo speech and Arab Spring, but a post-Arab Spring alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. It looks promising in terms of mutual antagonism to Iran and its clients, and joint opposition to the American-brokered deal with Iran.
One suspects that there is already considerable cooperation between the three, in terms of high level meetings between security professionals and politicians, shared intelligence, and their being on the same page with respect to Iran.
Israel has allowed Egypt to use troops and heavy military weapons in the Sinai against radical Islamists, despite the Camp David treaty meant to demilitarize the peninsula. Israel is not repeating its usual opposition to the flow of western military supplies to Saudi Arabia. Yet the “alliance,” to use a term likely to be several magnitudes too strong, must be managed with great delicacy. It has not replaced the use of Israel as the boogeyman of the Middle East, or led any Arab government to say that Palestinians will have to wait in order to achieve what they want.
An especially sensitive subset of this New Middle East is already occurring, and is likely to escalate surrounding attacks from the Sinai against Israel, and especially against Eilat. Egyptian sensitivities will prevent Israel from overt attacks against Islamists on Egyptian territory who succeed in evading Egyptian efforts and fire missiles into Israel. The prospect of joint Israel-Egyptian military activity is a theoretical possibility, but seems beyond the capacity of Egyptian officials to bring themselves or their population to what Israelis may be dreaming of as a New Middle East.
We don’t know what has been discussed or decided, either in joint Israeli-Egyptian forums, or among Israelis having to decided what to do if missiles fall on Israelis from the Sinai.
Israel remains a pariah. Given the history of the Jews, the role is not all that strange. Those who suffer are the Jews who think of themselves as part of the mainstream. We ain’t there. We have to manage what exists of the New Middle East with our fingertips. While there is something to the notion of a alliance between Israel and its former enemies, the people in those countries aren’t ready for it. Those in charge aren’t ready to admit having conversations with Israel. They are still talking against Israel, and those with money (i.e., Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States) are protecting themselves by financing fighters who live by their animosity to Israel.
The U.S. experience with Iran is not encouraging to any Israelis hoping for a real alliance with Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
Iranian leaders have responded to the nuclear agreement with assertions that are something other than warm and cuddly. They describe the Iranian people as continuing to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” and they express no opposition to those chants.
If that is the nature of what Americans see as a new opening to Iran, Israelis must be careful about playing in their view of a New Middle East.
This is not a game for amateurs, or those or pride themselves with great vision and thinking outside of the box. It’s dangerous out there, beyond what can be seen from here and now.
Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.