The start of 2014 came tumultuously in the Middle East, with blasts in Beirut, carnage in Syria, tensions in Egypt.
In Israel, the situation has been far from calm, but compared to the furious storms whipping its neighbors, the country looks like an island of stability.
As they scan the horizon, Israelis see a region in turmoil, their enemies caught up in their own feuds with no end in sight to the fighting. Battles are raging between Sunnis and Shiites, between Islamists and non-Islamists and among other sectarian groups.
In the short term, this means that Israel’s most formidable foes are occupied with other pressing problems. In the longer term, it means the region is moving toward an unknowable future.
The sheer number of conflicts in such a small geographical area is astonishing.
This is what Israeli strategists see when they cast their eyes over the country’s borders:
Over the northern border, the war in Syria shows no sign of easing. For a time it looked as though President Bashar al-Assad would be toppled, but now the conflict appears closer to a stalemate, with the recent tide turning slightly in the government’s favor. The only clear loser so far is the moderate opposition, which was essentially abandoned by the West, while other countries, primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have become more involved. What remains is a contest between a brutal dictator allied with Iran and Hezbollah, battling against an opposition dominated by extremist Islamist fighters, including militias loyal to al Qaida. Both sides despise Israel.
In Lebanon, next door to Syria, the war is seeping across the border, shaking up that small, divided country’s fragile foundation. Many Lebanese are furious at Hezbollah for joining the Syrian war. Sectarian violence in Lebanon is erupting with increasing frequency, and sometimes spilling over into Israel. Chaos in Lebanon in the past has spurred violence against Israel.
The one positive development for Israel is the sharp decline in the standing of Hezbollah, once the most popular organization in the region for its commitment to fighting Israel. It joined the fight on the side of a despised ruler at the urging of Iran, indelibly tainting its credibility.
In Israel’s southwestern corner, the Gaza Strip, Hamas remains in control but in deep crisis. The euphoria that came when the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt has been replaced — like the Muslim Brotherhood — by a new regime in Cairo that is deeply hostile to Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch. We hear much about Israel’s siege of Gaza, but the siege is just as intense across Gaza’s border with Egypt. Hamas is in trouble.
In Egypt, the military under Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has launched a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. He is firmly in control and may decide to run for president in the next elections. The Brotherhood is on the run, but it will not disappear. Political tensions and violence, particularly in the Sinai, which borders Israel, will continue for the foreseeable future.
In Jordan, to the east, King Abdallah still has his hands firmly on the rudder. Like other Arab monarchs, he survived the Arab Spring, but the country faces enormous challenges, not least of all, dealing with an ocean of suffering refugees streaming in from Syria, adding to the huge refugee populations from Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The prospect of a years’ long war in Syria will inevitably alter the delicate demographic balance in Jordan, where Palestinians currently make up the majority.
Those are Israel’s immediate neighbors. If you move one concentric circle out, the tensions are also palpable.
Violence has returned to Iraq with a fury. The U.N. described the “infernal circle,” as 2013 marked the deadliest year since 2008, with 7,818 people killed and 17,981 injured. The cause is a resurgent Al Qaeda and a worsening of tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s aggressively pro-Shiite regime. Violence and dangerous political pressures are climbing in several other countries in the region.
As they watch the drama, Israeli strategists are negotiating with Palestinians and nervously keeping an eye on Washington’s dealings with Iran. Israelis are skeptical about the sincerity and goals of both the Palestinians and the Iranians.
A genuinely positive outcome from negotiations would be welcome news. But one shudders to think what would follow if they fail.
Israeli strategists, watching the changing regional landscape, are no doubt considering a variety of scenarios and reviewing the country’s options.