Chaos, Uncertainty, Anxiety

The commotion, fighting, and death roiling through Arab countries is likely to produce several kinds of consequences. At the most extreme, it cannot be pleasant to be a Libyan or Syrian, wondering who will suffer from immediate attack or subsequent persecution. Who knows what kind of government will follow the upsets in Egypt and Tunis, where the actual violence has subsided, or whether Libya and Syria will also fall into the turmoil of change at the top and subsequent quarrels among factions wanting to take over?
What concerns Israel is not so much the immediate occurrences within the Arab countries, but how they may spill over onto us. Most of us despair of democratic and humanitarian enlightenment in our neighborhood. What''s in it for us? Is a fair question. "Us" may include Europeans and North Americans, but the "us" we are most concerned about is in the narrowest sense. Self interest being rule #1 in politics and especially international affairs, what else should a small and beleaguered country worry about? Except, perhaps, that problems occurring in Europe and North America from the Middle East turmoil, will come back on us. With big powers intervening here and there, either politically or militarily, those impacts may not be simple or pleasant.
The more immediate effects are apparent in Israeli media. Two events associated with changes in Egypt have provoked a range of commentary. The range itself is interesting, insofar as it suggests that Israeli politicians and commentators are far from agreed as to what is happening, and what we should do about it.
One event is the signing of a peace accord between Fatah and Hamas, the more secular and intensely Islamic parties currently in charge of the West Bank and Gaza. Egyptians who may only be momentarily in power brought the parties together, in a situation that hints of a new rapport that might replace years of animosity and violence between the Egyptian regime and an intense Islam that has demanded a severing of agreements with Israel and taking on the Palestinian cause as Egypt''s own.
Another event is the second explosion in a month that has cut the supply of natural gas from Egypt to Israel, and onward to Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Israelis are concerned that Egypt has not been serious about guarding the pipeline, perhaps on account of Egyptians calling for an end of the sales to Israel and other features of the 1978 Camp David Accord.
While no one can be certain where these events will lead, Israelis are at different points of concern and advocacy. "Chaos" is too strong a word for this placid little corner of the Middle East. "Uncertainty" is appropriate and maybe even "anxiety."
One of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu''s comments made it to the major heading on page one of Ha''aretz. It rests on international condemnations of Hamas as a terrorist organization, and its rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. "The (Palestinian) Authority Must Choose between Us and Hamas." A headline on page two: "Netanyahu Attacks Abbas: He Must Decide--Peace with Israel or Unity with Hamas."
An op-ed piece on page three is headed: "Life Preserver for Netanyahu." It notes that the agreement between Hamas and Fatah will ease Netanyahu''s visit to Washington. He will not have to present further concessions in his speech to Congress. And this is just what he may need to unify the public and organize international pressure against terror, Hamas, and by extensions all the Palestinians.
However, another commentary on the same page surmises that the Hamas-Fatah agreement will strengthen the Palestinians'' hand in the United Nations. Now they can say that the new country being recognized includes Gaza as well as the West Bank.
Also on page three is a report that Israeli unity is a figment of someone''s imagination. Yitzhak Herzog, one of the candidates for the leadership of the Labor Party, says that Israel must support the UN''s recognition of a Palestinian state. Herzog conditions his proposal on subsequent negotiations to settle boundaries, Israeli compensation for settlers who will have to move, acceptance of the principle that Palestinian refugees will return only to Palestine, and an international body to govern the sensitive religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem. He criticizes Netanyahu for seeing the Hamas-Fatah agreement as an excuse for stonewalling, rather than as an opportunity for moving forward.
The explosion in the Sinai has produced its own variety of Israeli responses. One cluster expresses concern about Egyptian honoring of its international agreements, and the animosity toward Israel heard from Egyptian activists. Egyptians are attacking both Mubarak and Israel by claiming that the gas agreement is the product of Mubarak''s corruption. According to this vies, he and others accepted bribes to sell gas at low prices to an Israeli company.
Israelis are lining up on both sides of this dispute. Some say that bribery was likely, given the nature of Egyptian government. Others say that Israel is paying an international price for Egyptian gas, and that there was no monkey business involved in the agreement.
Some are drawing implications from problems with Egypt for negotiations with Palestinians: If Israel cannot count on Egypt to honor an international agreement and a commercial contract, why even bother with the Palestinians?
Other responses about the explosion are more moderate. Insofar as Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria also suffer from the interruption in supply, and are less capable than Israel of paying for alternative sources of energy, the reason for the attack may not have been Israel. By this view, the problem is internal to Egypt, comprised of chronic conflict between whatever is the central government and the Bedouin of Sinai. If there was a political motivation behind the explosion, it was to threaten the central government with an interruption of payments from international customers. Prolonged unrest has caused significant damage to the tourism that is the country''s principal source of foreign currency. Gas sales rank somewhere in importance along with tolls for using the Suez Canal. The second rupture of the pipeline within a month may produce more chaos in Egypt than in Israel.
Change may be sweeping through the Arab countries of the Middle East. Predictions of a democratic bloom appear to be simpleminded in the extreme. Hardly less convincing are outsiders'' claims that surgical interventions will direct the turmoil in directions they favor.
Where are we? What''s next? These are questions that are producing arguments among those who claim to be our experts.