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Middle East Turmoil Sparks Unease in Israel

  • Scott Bobb

The year 2013 saw more upheaval in the Middle East as the effects continued from popular uprisings in a half-dozen countries. For Israel this brought a mixed reaction of reassurance and uncertainty.

The effort to end Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program caused Israeli leaders their greatest worry. Few believe Iran is serious about abandoning its program, whose existence it denies. Ephraim Kam is at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

"They [the Iranians] have not invested so many efforts and money just to stop it now even if they are in economic trouble. So what they are trying to do is to maneuver, to give something, to get much more than they give and when the time is appropriate to continue with their nuclear program," said Kam.

Israeli leaders are also watching the war in Syria. They like that the fighting is distracting the attention and absorbing the resources of Syria's government and its allies, Iran and Hezbollah. But the situation must be watched, said Ely Karmon of The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism. "Who will control the vast territory which now is under the control of dozens, dozens of small organizations," he questioned. "Jihadists, Salafists, some of them local warlords?"

The Syrian conflict has aggravated tensions between the Sunni and Shi'ite branches of Islam across the region. Ephraim Kam said this, too, is benefiting Israel, though the arrival of so many fighters is worrisome.

"Our concern is that at a certain point, when the struggle will decline, we are going to find these guys trying to challenge us. This is a problem. Not now. Not immediately. What we have immediately, it's relatively small incidents but sometime in future it can change," Kam said.

Egypt's military coup was a relief to Israeli officials. The new government in Cairo has cracked down on terrorist activity in the Sinai near Israel and wants to weaken the anti-Israel Hamas movement that rules Gaza.

The revival of peace talks with the Palestinians after a three-year freeze brought some hope but most observers are not optimistic.

Ely Karmon said each side is constrained by its hardliners. "So I think that we need an interim agreement which will give symbolic territorial gains to the Palestinians over the very short term, much more freedom of movement and economic incentives and a very general framework which will speak about a final agreement," he said.

The Palestinians are pessimistic. They don't believe Israel is ready to make concessions, like freezing West Bank settlement, said Hadi Abdul Mahdi of East Jerusalem's PASSIA research institute. "We are contained and will continue to be contained in an autonomy-minus situation, governed militarily by Israelis, controlled by the powers of the West and keeping mediocre people in offices like municipality arrangements," he added.

Israeli leaders said they are ready to make concessions but need security guarantees. But given the rising number of incidents in the past year, this appears less and less likely.

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