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

For decades, Israel had been hoping for change in the Arab world. Yet now that the region is in upheaval, its not just Israeli citizens who are concerned. The government has shown a preference for walling itself in rather than exploring new opportunities.


There is now a fence between Lieutenant Colonel Yoav Tilan and Egypt, and Tilan is clearly pleased about it. The fence is five meters (16 feet) tall and topped with shiny, sharp spikes. For good measure, the fence is flanked by three rows of barbed wire and an antitank ditch. From Israel's perspective, there is a good reason for the precautions. Egypt is now a perceived enemy. Seven months ago, killers crossed the border from Egypt and attacked busses and cars, killing eight Israelis.

"The border is hot," says Tilan, noting that it is now Israel's most dangerous. Border incidents, including gunfire and attempts to demolish the fence, have become an almost daily occurrence. Israeli authorities have also found explosives on several occasions.

Until recently, Tilan's job wasn't exactly a career-making position. Aside from drug smuggling, the area was so quiet that mostly reservists were sent there. In some places, the border wasn't even properly secured, consisting only of a rusty barbed-wire fence, often buried under sand and patrolled by Bedouins trained to read tracks in the desert. It was a tedious job, but revealed that illegal border crossings were common, including transgressions by off-road vehicles.

Indeed, Tilan's unit used to spend most of its time scooping up refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, more than 50,000 with a few years. The refugees were the motivation behind building the fence in the first place. But then came the revolution in Egypt, and explosions targeted the gas pipeline to Israel that runs through the Sinai Peninsula a total of 13 times. And then, on Aug. 18, 2011, came the attack. After that, the government sent in elite troops, special police units, a reconnaissance brigade and armored vehicles. It also sped up construction of the fence.

Cutting the Cord

Israel has been reacting in recent months the way it so often does when threatened: by walling itself in. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank disappeared behind security walls some time ago. There are high fences along the country's other borders, as well as land mines, but now it wants to improve border security even further by building a high-tech system like the one on the border with Egypt.

The Jewish state has tried to integrate itself into the Middle East for decades. Now it is trying to cut the cord between itself and the surrounding region, blocking out the changes in its neighborhood.

A year after the beginning of the Arab rebellions, it has become a story of mistrust, fear and apathy. Politicians like President Shimon Peres had long dreamed of a "new Middle East," a zone of democracy and freedom. But now that a new Middle East is in fact taking shape, the majority of Israelis and their government are not welcoming it. Although they want democratic neighbors, they are afraid of the democratization process, especially its uncertainties, as well as the instability and loss of control. No one knows yet what the new Middle East will look like, but the government has already decided that it is better to curl up into a ball than explore its options.

Israel's caution is understandable. Turmoil in the region has often embroiled the country in wars. Three times since the beginning of the recent uprisings, Arabs have tried to storm the Israeli border from Lebanon and Syria, most recently last week. But precisely for this reason, it is astonishing to see how little initiative the country is taking to achieve lasting peace in the region, even as it pulls out all the stops to ward off the more abstract threat of a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. In fact, if Israel truly intends to attack Iran, it will be all the more important for it to emerge from its isolation.

Israel sees itself as a "villa in the jungle," as Israeli politicians say, a vulnerable island of civilization surrounded by Islamists, as if Israel were not the most politically influential and militarily powerful force in the region. It's telling that in Israel the Arab Spring is merely referred to as the "Islamic Winter." Israelis like to point out that Gaza is an illustration of what happens when Islamists come into power, even though it hardly qualifies as an example.

'Moving Backward, Not Forward'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is quick to disabuse anyone who believes that the uprisings could also have positive consequences. The Arab rebellion is developing into an "Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave," the premier said in November. According to Netanyahu, the Arab world is "moving not forward, but backward," and anyone who believes Arabs and democracy are compatible is naïve.

Have the politicians' scare tactics worked? Or is Netanyahu merely expressing what his people think? In surveys, half of Israelis say that the uprisings would have a negative impact on their country. Shortly before Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak was toppled, two-thirds of Israelis thought that this would be bad for their country. And now, as even children are being murdered in Syria, more than one in four Israelis is still convinced that bringing down the person responsible for the massacres, Syrian President Bashar Assad, would not be a good thing.

"If there is one lesson we have learned from the uprisings, it is that we must be strong," says a government advisor who prefers not to be named. Stability, security and strength -- that is Netanyahu's mantra. For him, the Arab revolutions mean no concessions, because Israel's policy, as he says, cannot be "based on illusions." One of these illusions is that peace is possible.

But what could Israel's relationship with the Arab world look like in the future? Three Israelis who are closer to the Arab world than most people in Israel explain their views of what the future could hold. The first is Lieutenant Colonel Tilan, the border patrol officer. The other two are Yitzhak Levanon, Israel's ambassador to Egypt until recently, and Lior Ben-Dor, the Foreign Ministry's Arabic media spokesman. Tilan defends Israel, Levanon represents it and Ben-Dor campaigns on its behalf.

Twice as High

At the border in the south, Tilan watches as welders reinforce the fence. The five-meter fence here is no longer high enough so they are now making it twice as high, hoping that it will prevent people from firing across it from the other side. The workers complete 400 meters (1,312 feet) a day, and the entire 240 kilometers (150 miles) are expected to be finished by the end of the year.

"Terrorists will still find ways to penetrate into Israel, by digging tunnels, attacking the fence or coming by sea," says the lieutenant colonel. According to Tilan, several groups in the Sinai Peninsula are currently preparing attacks. "Our cooperation with the Egyptians is seasonal. It depends on them how much resistance they..." -- Tilan corrects himself: "…how they want to govern the Sinai." The suspicions run deep, despite the fact that Israeli and Egyptian officials meet regularly, sometimes at the border crossing and sometimes at the fence, remaining on their respective sides -- a cautious rapprochement.

The new isolation is more evident in southern Israel than anywhere else. In Eilat on the Red Sea, the hotels are lined up along the shore, hemmed in by the Jordanian port city of Aqaba to the East and the Egyptian town of Taba to the West. In the past, Israelis ventured in both directions, but since the uprisings they have chosen to remain in Eilat, a 10-kilometer strip of land between the two borders.

Egypt, Jordan and also Turkey were long Israel's most important allies in the region. But this diplomatic network is dissolving, and new alliances with Greece, Cyprus and South Sudan have done little to help so far. By no means does the fault lie entirely with Israel, but it has also done little to improve relations. It chose not to reconcile with Turkey, and it has refused to accommodate the Palestinians at all.


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