Israel and the New Middle East: The Choice between Hope and Panic – Part II

Sunday, July 15, 2012 |  Elisabeth Blade

The situation is equally bad on the Syrian border with some experts fearing that things will just get worse with Assad’s fall. Syrian's current president has always been a staunch supporter of Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas, but he cooperated with Israel when it came to security. Now, however, with Assad's grip on Syria loosening, Israel’s northern front might begin to evolve towards a Sinai-type situation. Just like in Egypt, Syria finds itself flooded with Iranian, Turkish and Saudi weapons reaching the country from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

However, Barak sees Assad’s ouster as an opportunity, hoping that it would break the Syrian-Iranian axis and weaken various terror cells operating under those countries’ umbrellas. The only problem is that other – more hostile blocs – can pop up instead. After seizing power in Egypt (to the rejoicing of Hamas), the Muslim Brotherhood might end up ruling Syria as well, forming a poisonous alliance that could be directed against Israel.

But as Russian Institute of Middle Eastern Studies reports, Qatar – the main financier of the Muslim Brotherhood -- promised Jerusalem to tackle the problem by calming the moods of the militants and replacing the Hamas echelon in Gaza with more ‘Israel-friendly’ leaders.

Meanwhile, the Syrian revolution drags on, leaving at least 15 thousand people dead. Tens of thousands have already fled the violence, seeking refuge in neighboring Jordan (estimated 120,000), Lebanon (26,000) and Turkey (30,800); whereas 200,000 others are expected to flood Cyprus.

But when (and if) the Syrian regime finally collapses, the sectarian strife will inevitably escalate, pushing thousands of Alawites -- supporters of Assad that make up some 10-12% of the Syrian population -- to flee for their lives, for fear of retribution by the Sunnis who will take over.

In January, Israel’s Chief of Staff, Benny Ganz, announced the country was preparing to take in some Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights. Israel is already home to a small Alawite community of about 2,200 people that ‘changed hands’ in 1967, when Israel conquered the area. Now, however, the Jewish state is embracing itself for more.

“The question is: what are we going to do with them?” said Christopher, not his real name, a researcher, specializing on the issue of Israel’s refugees. “When we withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel absorbed some 6,000 Lebanese, former soldiers in the South Lebanese Army (SLA) and their families. Over the years, many have left. Only 1,200 of them remained, living dispersed throughout northern Israel,” he continued.

The pundit also stressed that Israel has no clear-cut policy on the issue, with the country’s political elite pretty much at odds with each other. “While Benny Ganz says we will accept some, our Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, claims he won’t allow any. Before letting refugees in, we actually have to sit down and come up with a program that would suit everyone.”

Apparently, the country’s top-brass is also split on how to handle the other consequences of the Arab Spring. “Some prefer a ‘wait-and-see’ policy,” said Perlov. “Others are calling to smash the new regimes in their infancy, while they are still weak, and yet others are urging the government to create new alliances that could counterbalance regimes hostile to Israel,” she pointed out.

The emerging bloc of Israel, Cyprus, Greece, and, potentially, Russia happens to be one such union. Built around the gas exploration project in the eastern Mediterranean, the countries are also united by a variety of common challenges, including the looming threat of militant Islam and the large number of refugees displaced in the region. Apart from that, Netanyahu is reportedly tightening cooperation with sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya, Uganda and the Ivory Coast), which is worried that the rise of Islamists in North Africa will spread south.

“I believe that the best way to solve the current problems is through cooperation,” stressed Perlov. “But unlike Washington, which chooses to hold negotiations with the Muslim Brothers, we should talk to those moderates behind the revolts in the Arab world. Liberals, centrists, minorities – or whoever longs for democratic values,” she told the magazine.

Comprising some 5-10% of Egypt's population, Perlov thinks Israel has now got a unique opportunity to create more channels able to reach the general public. She doesn't believe in simply increasing military presence on the borders, building barricades and barbed wire fences, completing minefields and deep ditches. Instead -- says the researcher -- Israel should lead a dialogue with its neighbors, spread the word, make a positive change. “We could cooperate on the security level by creating a special body that would regulate arms flows; we could bolster our economic ties by creating a free market that would encourage the development of the middle class – the backbone of any economy. When those people start leading decent lives, only then we will have societies that won’t be pinning the blame on Israel,” she summed up.

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