Sunday 28 August 2011

The 'New' Middle East is a renewed threat to the Zionist's cause

Freedom for extremists could make Sinai the new Somalia

YOU'D have to be a very grumpy bear indeed not to be thrilled at the fall of Arab dictators, especially unmitigated creeps like Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, and the rise of a genuine democratic spirit across the Arab world.

But consider this. One immediate result of the Arab Spring is a brand new franchise operation for al-Q'aida. In Egypt's Sinai desert, which borders Israel, a group has arrived announcing itself as al-Qa'ida in the Sinai Peninsula. Another group calls itself al-Shabab al-Islam (Youth of Islam).

The franchises are new and pretty undeveloped so far. As yet, al-Qa'ida central has not granted formal recognition to its aspiring Sinai franchise. But really, it's only a matter of time.

This week, an Israeli cabinet minister told me that looted Libyan weapons have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip.

In both Libya and Egypt, the prisons were emptied. Many innocent people were wrongly incarcerated in those prisons. But there were also many, many authentically extremist jihadists who have now gone back to the life of murder, suicide and caliphate building, which is their true love.

There is still much cause for hope in the Arab Spring, but we ought not to look away from the many unpleasant facts staring us in the face. Australia's best friend and closest ally in the Middle East is Israel. In many ways, Israel is the only expression in the Middle East, apart perhaps from some segments of Lebanon, of Western civilisation and values. In the long run, Israel would benefit immeasurably from more representative, democratic and successful Arab societies around it.

But as Keynes pointed out, in the long run we are all dead, and there's a lot to negotiate in the short run.

The Middle East commentator and author George Friedman has proposed in a recent essay a worrying but persuasive analytical grid for understanding the Arab Spring.

Friedman wrote: "(Egypt's) Mubarak, Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi all represented the old pan-Arab vision. A much better way to understand the Arab Spring is that it represented the decay of such regimes that were vibrant when they came to power in the 1960s and early 1970s but have fallen into ideological meaninglessness. Fatah (the dominant Palestinian political force) is part of this grouping, and while it still speaks for Palestinian nationalism as a secular movement, beyond that it is isolated from broader trends in the region.

It is both at odds with rising religiosity and simultaneously mistrusted by the monarchies it tried to overthrow. Yet it controls the Palestinian proto-state, the Palestinian National Authority, and thus will be claiming a UN vote on Palestinian statehood. Hamas, on the other hand, is very representative of current trends in the Islamic world and holds significant popular support."

This is a disturbing but plausible interpretation of the Arab Spring. The temper of Egyptian populism since the fall of Hosni Mubarak has been increasingly Islamist. The young, secular protesters of Tahrir Square are hopelessly disorganised and divided, the Muslim Brotherhood, which exercised brilliant tactical quiet during the big demonstrations, has come to the fore and looks set to win well over a third of the vote in parliamentary elections.

It is intimidating the Egyptian military, which is terrified of itself becoming the hated object of popular demonstrations, into a quasi-alliance and it is reaching out to its Muslim Brotherhood cousins in Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Yesterday, I spoke at length to Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. He recognises three big trends from the Arab Spring which promise complication, if not outright trouble, for Israel in the months ahead

The first is the weakening of the Arab state. Weak states cannot control their borders, their weapons or their radicals.

The second trend is the final upset of the old Arab order. The three main Arab states -- Egypt, Iraq and Syria -- are all weakened and the region is increasingly dominated by non-Arab players, such as Iran, Turkey and, indeed, Israel. The two main Muslim nations that were Israel's allies -- Egypt and Turkey -- have in their different ways turned against Jerusalem.

And the third big trend, in Inbar's view, is the decline of US power, influence and prestige in the Middle East. The Americans sacrificed a friend, in Mubarak, but took no action, not even the deployment of rhetorical enthusiasm, against a long-time enemy, Syria's Assad.

Barack Obama came into office with several clear-cut policies for the Middle East. They have all failed. Chief among Obama's policies were initiatives to engage Iran and Syria. Neither of these engagements yielded one ounce of benefit for the US or for anyone else, apart from the governments of Iran and Syria, in the Middle East. On the Israel/Palestine issue, Obama has been wholly ineffective.

His initial stress on halting Israeli building within its existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank was completely counter-productive. Not only did this have absolutely no effect on the amount of land used for settlements, which does not increase when building occurs within existing boundaries, but it made it virtually impossible for the Palestinians to negotiate directly with Israel, because they could not demand from Israel less than Obama demanded.

As a result, the world lost two years of potential dialogue between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, two years in which the PA weakened and Hamas probably strengthened. Then when Obama finally did call for direct negotiations, the Palestinians, after the shortest possible time, stood him up.

Don't get me wrong, the US still has great influence in the Middle East. It is almost certainly only because of US influence that the Egyptian military is for the moment sticking with its peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian army is US-trained and equipped, and to some extent even US-funded. It wants, if it can, to maintain that American connection. And the price for that is the peace treaty with Israel.

Add to that the US military presence in the Persian Gulf and Washington still counts for a great deal. But under Obama, it probably counts for much less in the Middle East than it has for many, many years.

On August 18, there was an extremely sophisticated terrorist attack mounted on Israel from within the Sinai peninsula. It originated in the Gaza Strip. The terrorists travelled through the Sinai and attacked within Israel near the southern resort centre of Eilat. It was a simultaneous, multi-location attack on Israeli buses and private cars.

It occurred in broad daylight, used an Israeli-registered car, had back-up mortar fire from within Egyptian territory and some of the attackers were disguised as Egyptian soldiers. It killed six Israelis. In retaliatory fire, the Israelis may have accidentally killed three Egyptian soldiers. This caused massive anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo. Yet Islamist extremists have themselves been killing Egyptian policemen and soldiers in the Sinai without arousing popular anger in Egypt.

Many Egyptian newspapers instantly printed conspiracy theory explanations that the Israelis had staged the attack themselves in order to justify military action against Egypt, and the Israelis would soon seek to take back territory in the Sinai from Egypt.

This is all incredibly destabilising. Although, with Israel's agreement, Egypt has sent more troops into Sinai to try to restore order, it has essentially lost control of Sinai, where non-integrated Bedouin tribes are happy to co-operate with Islamist terrorists.

More than that, the Sinai is of iconic significance to the Middle East. It is the one example in independent Israel's history of the land-for-peace formula actually working. Now the Israel/Egypt treaty is under deep threat. Israel will need to build a security fence along the Sinai and devote many more military resources to its southern flank.

Hamas sees how a small terrorist attack can cause a big anti-Israel reaction in Egypt. Although it seems that Hamas was not directly involved in this terrorist attack, it can easily create front groups to carry out attacks to provoke Israel and force Israeli retaliation while avoiding clear-cut blame for itself. It would thus put maximum pressure on the Israel/Egypt peace treaty.

Some of the best Israeli analysts think Hamas might wait to do this until after the next Palestinian elections, in which, if they are free elections, Hamas could very well supplant Fatah as the dominant group in the PA. Hamas, it should be remembered, is a terrorist organisation formally pledged to the complete destruction of Israel.

In this context, it is inconceivable that a permanent peace deal can be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians to give life to the desired two-state solution. That remains the goal but it's a long way off.

Jordan has announced that it will vote against next month's UN resolution declaring, unilaterally, an independent Palestinian state, which will have no effect on the ground other than perhaps to help incite a third Palestinian intifada.

This UN resolution would be all about bashing Israel and nothing else. It would have no constructive purpose. There is absolutely no good reason why Australia should not vote against this resolution. To do otherwise would be dishonourable, and bad policy. Our friends are our friends, after all, especially when the whole world is against them.


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