The new Middle East steps backward

Even if Syrian uprising dislodges Assad regime, there is little reason to think Sunni replacement will be less hostile toward Israel.

Syrian masses protest 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian masses protest 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There is a new Middle East taking shape, but its character and contours are still emerging. The unprecedented political turmoil in Arab countries remains rudderless, with no clear direction yet. The prevailing military dictatorships of decades past will either survive in weakened versions, slowly yield to true democratic reforms, or regress toward Islamism.
The old Middle East was notoriously unpredictable – even the uprisings of recent months took everyone by complete surprise. But there were certain truisms about the old order that gave the region some measure of consistency. One such maxim was: “If you do not come to the Middle East, the Middle East will come to you.” Indeed, its unresolved problems came to the West far too often in various haunting forms, from airplane hijackings and long gas lines in the 1970s to the mass terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Sadly, that is not likely to change.
Another proven adage of the old Middle East held that “the Arabs cannot make peace with Israel without Syria, but cannot make war with Israel without Egypt.” Damascus always championed the rejectionist camp, blocking any comprehensive acceptance of Israel in the region, while Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel (albeit a cold peace) stymied any hope of pan-Arab defeat of the IDF in battle. This equation will undoubtedly be impacted by the current unrest.
Egypt is already showing worrisome signs of renewed hostility toward Israel.
The Supreme Military Council now running the country is bowing to the will of the Tahrir Square crowds by announcing its intent to reconsider the natural gas deals made with Israel pursuant to the 1979 peace treaty.
If those agreements can be legally assailed and undone, the Israel-Egypt peace treaty cannot be far behind.
Indeed, all the major players jockeying for seats in the parliamentary elections this autumn have pledged to “review” the treaty with Israel – a position widely backed by public opinion polls. Leading presidential contender Amr Moussa, the Arab League chieftain who has built his popularity by shamelessly bashing Israel, insisted recently that the Camp David Accords had “expired” and that Israel has failed to prove it is a “friend” of Egypt.
Egypt’s interim foreign minister has promised to reopen the Rafah crossing into Gaza, allowing Hamas to ferry in and out far more weapons and terrorists than through its cross-border smuggling tunnels. Cairo also just brokered the Fatah-Hamas unity pact, taking the Palestinians a major step away from peace with Israel.
Finally, Egypt has announced plans to “open a new page” with its long-time adversary Iran.
Meanwhile, the Assad dynasty in Syria has launched a brutal crackdown on opposition protests that have resulted in more than 800 civilian deaths so far, with another 10,000 imprisoned.
Yet even if the Syrian uprising succeeds in dislodging the Assad regime, there is little reason to think its Sunni replacement will be any less hostile toward Israel. The Sunni majority likely will not be as pro-Iran, but – like in Egypt – the Syrian masses have already been spoon-fed so much anti-Zionist and anti- Semitic invective, it will assuredly be reflected even in a democratically elected government. Something worse could actually replace Assad.
So I am left very pessimistic on the chances that the regional upheaval will mean positive changes for Israel. At the least, Egypt and Syria will follow the Turkish model, where an Islamist party has played the Israel card to gain votes and then asserted an aggressively independent line against Israel and the US in matters of foreign policy.
And all the while, Iran is quietly exploiting the distractions caused by the “Arab Spring” to continue its relentless pursuit of nuclear capabilities.
Parsons is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem;