Doing more for regional security and peace

Civil wars and insurgencies are multiplying, producing large numbers of battle-hardened jihadi fighters and desperate refugees.

Army of Islam terrorists in Gaza 370 (R) (photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)
Army of Islam terrorists in Gaza 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters)
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 process.
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 2.0 neighborhood.
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.
Fast forward and the reasonably functioning state has become a distinct minority in the vast geographical space between Nouakchott, Mogadishu, and Sana’a.
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 Gaza.
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 party.
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.
To 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.
For example, 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 priority.
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.
Strengthening border 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 Tunisia.
Elections do help to avoid military coups and improve governments and societies alike, but only if they are free, fair and, most importantly, regular.
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 survival.
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.
To 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 effectively. ■
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.