In the Eye of the Storm: Israel Wary of Changes in the Arab World

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

Part 2: Warnings against Passivity and Pessimism

Photo Gallery: Israel's Increasing Skepticism of its Neighbors Photos
DPA

In December Levanon, 67, was one of the last Israelis in Cairo, where he attended a farewell event at which the Egyptian intelligence chief gave him a model of a Pharaonic chariot. Levanon, Israel's ambassador to Egypt for more than a year, is a slim, white-haired man who can tell jokes in Arabic that even Egyptians find funny.

Levanon was in Cairo on the day in September when an agitated mob stormed the Israeli Embassy there. He was sitting in his apartment, watching the events unfold on television. He saw that policemen were standing in front of the embassy, but that they did not stop people from breaking down the walls around the building with hammers. Levanon called everyone he knew, including diplomats, intelligence officials and employees at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. In the end, an Egyptian special-forces unit rescued the Israeli guards. Then the ambassador and his staff were flown out of the country.

"It made me sad and furious, not so much at these people but at the Mubarak regime," says Levanon. "It's a consequence of a policy that allowed the hatred to grow for decades." Mubarak was a reliable partner, on the one hand, says Levanon. On the other hand, he allowed his newspapers to agitate against Israel, creating a release valve for the anger of the poor.

Levanon's successor lives in a hotel and travels home on weekends. The entire contents of the embassy were just flown to Tel Aviv on two cargo planes. Will there ever be a real embassy again? The new wind that is blowing from Egypt isn't exactly reassuring, says Levanon. Only a few weeks ago, a committee in the Egyptian parliament declared Israel to be Egypt's "Public Enemy Number One," and recommended expelling the Israeli ambassador and terminating natural gas exports to Israel. At the same time, the ruling military council just appointed a new ambassador to Tel Aviv and brokered a cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In doing so, the council has made it clear that it has not changed its position.

'Little to Do with Us'

"What is happening in the Arab countries has little to do with us," says Levanon. Israel, he adds, has to give them time and, in the meantime, establish contact with all sides. It was this line of thinking that prompted Levanon to recommend talking to the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after Mubarak was ousted. "But it was turned down." Levanon believes that it could be too late for that now, while officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry feel that it's still too early.

Israel is also restrained on the issue of Syria, and no Israeli politician has publicly called for Assad's resignation. Israel doesn't want to harm the opposition with public statements, says an advisor to the government. But many Arabs will likely interpret this as tacit support for the Assad regime.

It took a year before the Israeli foreign minister said, in early March: "The Jewish nation cannot sit by and do nothing while citizens of our neighboring country are being slaughtered." Although Israel could not intervene, he added, "it's our moral obligation to at least extend humanitarian aid and to call upon the world to stop the massacres."

Ironically, it is precisely those who were once responsible for the nation's security who are now warning against passivity and pessimism. "Obviously Israel is in the eye of the storm, but it behaves as if it were not involved in the events," writes Efraim Halevi, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. Halevi insists that the uprising in Syria is an invaluable boon for Israel, because it has shattered the axis joining Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. The latter have just questioned their support for Iran in the event of an Israeli attack. And if the Syrian aid for Hezbollah were to dry up, perhaps even Lebanon could look forward to a second Cedar Revolution.

Addressing the Arabs on Facebook

Others, like former intelligence chiefs Ami Ayalon and Mer Dagan, advocate negotiations with the Palestinians to counter Israel's growing isolation, but the government is doing nothing -- at a time when every bit of progress would help preserve the peace with Egypt and strengthen the king in Jordan. Jordan is still quiet, but the virus of the Arab rebellion is already in the country. King Abdullah II, hoping to placate his people, has recently made public remarks critical of Israel. He hasn't sent an ambassador to Tel Aviv in two years, while the Israeli Embassy in Amman is under tighter security than many a central bank. When two Israeli psychiatrists gave a lecture in Amman recently, hundreds of students protested in front of the university. Security forces had to take the two Israelis out a back door.

Such incidents illustrate why Israel feels so threatened. On the other hand, the country has done little to address the people in neighboring countries directly, it was enough to negotiate with their rulers. The government ought to approach the Arabs now, and yet not a single Israel politician has addressed the demonstrators in Cairo or Tunis in a speech. Nevertheless, the country is cautiously putting out its feelers via the Internet.

Lior Ben-Dor, 43, is linked to exactly 103,199 Arabs, who have subscribed to the Foreign Ministry's Facebook page. The page, called "Israel Speaks Arabic," was created a year ago.

Ben-Dor, the Foreign Ministry's Arabic media spokesman, is Israel's face on Al-Jazeera. But Ben-Dor has also become active on the Internet, where he tries to tear down the walls Israel is building. He uses chats to oppose anti-Israeli propaganda, but his is only a quiet voice in a noisy environment. "After all, we don't know which of these people might become important. Or perhaps someone will just talk to his friends about Israel and stick up for us." Even Ben-Dor knows that this is little more than a vague hope.

'Little Has Changed'

He has just posted a video featuring the Israeli singer Dudu Aharon, and a dialogue is unfolding beneath the video. Between comments like "One day we'll exterminate you" and "Go to hell," there are also those who write: "Great singer." Ben-Dor's staff has weeded out 10 of 17 comments, which is about normal.

They prefer to post music videos or images of the beach in Tel Aviv. The message is simple: Israel is a harmless country where life is good. "Whenever someone indicates that he is open to our arguments, I write to him," says Ben-Dor. Sometimes he spends hours in a single chat, and he recently had a long discussion with an Egyptian journalist.

While Ben-Dor is chatting, a pencil drawing of Jordan's King Hussein is looking over his shoulder. He has drawn them all: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. A few months ago, he began posting his drawings on Facebook. The drawing of Assad was especially popular, partly because of the caption Ben-Dor had written next to it in Arabic: "I love my people to death."

Some 11,401 people clicked on the Assad drawing, 141 commented and 98 "liked" it. One user wrote: "Dear Israel, largest democracy in the Middle East, who will replace Assad when he is gone?" Another wrote: "Assad is a coward. He should get out." These are the kinds of responses Ben-Dor likes. "Many Arabs have never spoken with Israelis, and for many a chat with me is the first time." They have become more curious, says Ben-Dor, now that their rulers are gone, and they are asking new questions.

There are positive signs at the individual level, says the diplomat. "But by and large little has changed. They don't hate us any less than before. But not any more than before, either."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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