Three thorny issues stood at the heart of the
talks between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in
Jerusalem this week: countering Iran’s malign international influence; managing
the dangerous fallout from the inevitable eventual collapse of the Assad regime
in Syria; and resuscitating the now moribund Israeli- Palestinian peace
These present an already busy agenda, but one far more likely to
progress to the benefit of both partners, should Israel’s new coalition
government and Obama’s second-term security and foreign policy team manage to
reach a shared understanding about the imperative of better handling the
political and security conditions in Israel’s increasingly unstable, Arab Spring
That neighborhood is characterized by several deeply
disturbing, rapidly evolving dynamics that, unless effectively checked, and
gradually reversed, threaten to produce a continuing avalanche of state failure
in North Africa and the Middle East; compromise the precious few,
America-brokered peace arrangements between Israel and its neighbors; increase
the risk of war and terrorism; and shatter, perhaps irrevocably, the prospects
for a sustainable Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Though never a paragon of
good governance, since the advent of the Arab revolts in early 2011, the Middle
East has suffered a near-collapse of political order. The old Arab dictators –
from Ben- Ali to Mubarak, Gaddafi to Assad – may have been SOBs (and not
necessarily our SOBs), yet they largely exercised a monopoly on the use of force
within their respective territories, and controlled their borders and suppressed
populations – as did Saddam Hussein in Iraq before March 2003.
forward and the reasonably functioning state has become a distinct minority in
the vast geographical space between Nouakchott, Mogadishu, and
Civil wars and insurgencies are multiplying, producing large
numbers of battle-hardened jihadi fighters and desperate refugees. Loss of state
control also means the proliferation of criminal networks, increasingly powerful
non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and greater ability for transnational terrorists
and their chief state sponsors – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Qatar – to
cooperate across porous borders.
In this reality, Iran and Sudan’s
elaborate weapons-smuggling industry is not only enjoying an unprecedented boom,
but enormous quantities of increasingly sophisticated arms are flowing from
lawless Libya into lawless Sinai, and across some 1200 tunnels into
The number, lethality and range of these weapons was starkly
demonstrated during Operation Pillar of Defense, when in a single week of
fighting, over 1500 rockets were fired into Israel by Hamas and Palestinian
Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Salafist groups in Sinai – the former reaching as far
as Tel-Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Egypt’s President Mohamed
Morsi and the Egyptian military have repeatedly promised both the US and Israel
that Cairo is willing and able to stop large-scale weapons-smuggling to Gaza and
root out jihadists in Sinai – most recently by launching Operation Eagle – but
have produced few tangible results so far.
Despite the fact that Sinai
now poses a strategic threat to its national security, Israel is effectively
hampered from taking any action in the peninsula – preferring to bend over
backwards to avoid any military or political crisis with the new Egyptian
regime, a crisis that would certainly weaken already tenuous diplomatic ties and
could shatter the Camp David peace accords to which the US is a formal
Neither Israel nor Egypt wishes to be drawn into a confrontation
over Sinai and Gaza, but the terrorists know this and will do anything in their
power to drag Egypt and Israel into an accidental military escalation.
avoid this disaster for American foreign policy, Obama should act swiftly and
decisively to help Cairo into compliance with its international legal
obligations and improving security and governance in Sinai.
Egyptian army officers stationed in Sinai are today not only outgunned by local
terrorists, but are stymied from implementing Operation Eagle by the cumbersome
procedure of having to seek and acquire Cairo’s prior approval for any action
that may result in a confrontation. Improving the ability of Sinai-based
Egyptian security forces to act can and should be made a
Similarly, illicit weapons enter Gaza primarily through Sinai,
but to reach Sinai from Libya they have to pass both the Libyan-Egyptian border
and mainland Egypt into the peninsula itself.
control and intercepting arms on Egyptian soil before they reach Sinai needs to
be made an American-Egyptian priority.
A concerted effort to develop
Sinai and ensure it is better governed is also an essential Egyptian-
Israeli-American interest. A long-neglected backwater, Sinai’s largely Beduin
population has over the past decade shifted away from tourism and into a blend
of highly profitable organized crime and terrorist activity. Morsi’s dire
economic woes mean that his necessity for foreign aid is now unprecedentedly
high. Washington has already earmarked $60 million for a small and mediumsize
“enterprise fund” scheduled to begin operating this month. It could condition
some additional aid – both bilateral and through the $5 billion IMF loan still
being negotiated with Egypt – on Morsi’s support for a designated “Sinai
Security, Development and Good Governance Plan.”
The savvy use of
financial, military and technical aid – through American, European and
multilateral institutions such as the EU, IMF and World Bank – can also assist
in ensuring political competition remains alive in Egypt, Libya and
Elections do help to avoid military coups and improve
governments and societies alike, but only if they are free, fair and, most
The real test for whether the new Islamist
governing elites submit themselves to electoral scrutiny in these countries will
come in 2014 and 2015.
In order to avoid repeat performances of Algeria
and Gaza’s disastrous “One Man, One Vote, One Time” experience, the US and its
Western partners must lay the foundations now for robust monitoring and
reporting of political conditions in those Arab countries which have experienced
first elections in 2011 and 2012. Such scrutiny – which could be led by the
National Endowment for Democracy in the US and the European Foundation for
Democracy in the EU – should address not only the process of elections on the
day, but ensure that opposition parties are allowed to compete fairly. Media
freedom, rule of law and human rights standards, particularly vis-à-vis women
and minorities, should also be a priority.
While promoting genuine
electoral competition is vital in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia once they have
already experienced a transition, the name of the game in the Hashemite Kingdom
of Jordan at this time is regime preservation. Jordan must be protected as the
last remaining island of relative stability on Israel’s border. Should the king
fall, or be forced into an Islamist, Palestinian-led political constellation,
Israel will be engulfed by a combination of hostile regimes and chaos – a
nightmarish scenario likely to bury Israeli-Jordanian coexistence and pave the
way for Hamas to seize the West Bank.
The danger is clear and present.
Like its disintegrating neighbors Iraq and Syria, Jordan is an instant state
formed at the stroke of a European colonizer’s pen and ruled by a minority.
Perennially poor, Jordan’s economy is now under severe strain – partly the
result of having to absorb close to a million Iraqi and Syrian refugees in less
than a decade – and has become entirely dependent on foreign aid for
Most of that foreign aid currently emanates from a handful of
Gulf monarchies, not the West. Moreover, Israel and the US can help lower water
and energy costs in Jordan – both a cause for popular resentment – by
dramatically increasing the supply of desalinated water and supplying Jordan
with Israeli gas and solar energy.
Finally, in the Israeli-Palestinian
arena, the Obama administration must assure both Israel and the PA that it will
not repeat its predecessor’s 2006 Gaza folly by allowing Hamas to abuse
elections in order to seize power through violence in the West Bank.
do so, the US should endorse PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s principles that
place institutionbuilding, economic development and good governance at the sine
qua non of sustainable peace.
At a time when the region is experiencing a
cascade of state failure, assuming the risk of promoting the establishment of
yet another weak or failed state on Israel’s doorstep would be a catastrophic
mistake. Containing and eventually reversing extremism and chaos across the
Middle East means that Obama must insist that there can be no full Palestinian
sovereignty without the proven ability to govern securely, legitimately and
The writer is a professor at the Lauder School of Government,
Diplomacy and Strategy and the Marc & Anita Abramowitz senior researcher at
the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), both at the
Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya (IDC); and a visiting fellow at the Hoover
Institution at Stanford University.