Israel and the Arab Spring | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 03.07.2012
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World

Israel and the Arab Spring

The political upheaval in the Arab World presents new challenges to Israel. Its former partners have embarked on an uncertain political course and calculable enemies such as Syria have their backs against the wall.

The termination of Egyptian natural gas deliveries in April caused quite some concern in Israel. Not only because the state-owned Egyptian gas company supplied 40 percent of the country's gas via pipelines in the Sinai peninsula, but also because the gas supplies were a central economic element of the 1979 peace accord with Egypt.

Unperturbed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played down the issue: "It's about a business conflict between two firms - a private Israeli company and the Egyptian gas consortium." He told reporters the Israeli government was in close contact with the Egyptian leadership, stressing that the cancellation had no political background. Netanyahu said Israel would insist on Egypt abiding to the delivery terms - if necessary with a complaint to international courts of law.

The dispute over gas - sold to Israel at bargain prices on terms agreed by ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - is but one example of the increasing tension between Israel and its neighbors.

Israeli military plane dropping supplies for ground troops

Israel faces new disputes as ties deteriorate

Israeli fears

Marc Berthold of the German Heinrich-Böll Foundation in Tel Aviv says the Arab Spring hasn't necessarily isolated Israel more than before. "But of course the threat and how it's perceived in Israel have changed," he told DW. "The fears which Israel had from the start, while Europe was so upbeat, seem now to be justified, in particular with regard to Egypt and Syria."

It is still unclear how the situation in Egypt will develop and whether the Islamists' increasing influence will have an effect on foreign policy, Berthold says; currently, political leaders are keeping a close watch on developments in Syria: "The chaos in Syria is mainly a catastrophe for Syrians, but in the future, it could also impact Israel."

But Israel's hands are tied, Berthold says; in the Middle East, the mere accusation of being in touch with Israel is a nightmare scenario for opposition activists. "The Israelis can't pipe up: it would only undermine the opposition if they were susceptible to the accusation of being controlled by Israel," says Berthold. All Israel can do is observe its borders: whether the conflict is expanding into Lebanon or even whether President Bashar al-Assad, as a diversionary tactic, chooses to conjure a conflict with Israel.

Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, sums up the situation. "Israel must always be prepared for all eventualities - no matter what happens in Syria," he told DW. That means, he says, Israel's government and armed forces must also be prepared should the domestic Syrian conflict be decided in Assad's favor.

Icy relations between Ankara and Jerusalem

For many years, Israel's close relationship with Turkey strengthened its position in the region. The Turkish side even negotiated Israeli-Syrian peace talks. The present tense ties with Turkey, once Israel's most important partner in the Muslim world, have nothing to do with the Arab Spring, but rather the Mideast conflict.

Relations cooled considerably after Israeli security forces killed nine Turkish activists on board a ship of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010. Relations soured even further after the UN released its report of the raid, giving Israel the right to enforce its naval blockade against Hamas-ruled Gaza. In the report, Israel's use of firearms against the activists was the only point regarded as disproportionate.

Turkish demonstrators

Demonstrators in Istanbul protest against Israel

The Turkish government was outraged, recalled its ambassador from Israel and, on September 2, 2011, expelled Israel's ambassador from Ankara. NATO-member Turkey had already halted military cooperation. The Turkish government continues to demand reparation payments for the families of the victims as well as an official apology by Israel.

But Marc Berthold is convinced the tensions will not last. A good part of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's menacing rhetoric, he says, is motivated by domestic politics.

New source of friction

Other conflicts of interest promise to be much more serious than the saber-rattling in the aftermath of the flotilla raid, such as the dispute over a large natural gas field discovered recently in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel and claimed by both nations. The divide is already evident in the waters between Israel and Cyprus, the northern part of which is occupied by Turkey. In December 2011, Israel and Cyprus agreed on the course of their maritime borders and thus on the exploration of resources in the eastern Mediterranean - a slap in the face of Turkey.

In the dispute over gas exploration, Turkey's Minister for European Affairs went so far as to threaten EU member Cyprus with an intervention by the Turkish navy. Lebanon has also claimed rights to the gas fields, while, closer to home, Israel is intent on making sure the Hamas leadership can't develop and exploit gas fields off the coast of Gaza. Neighboring Syria, meanwhile, is grappling with its own problems.

As long as it isn't clear where the countries affected by the Arab Spring uprisings are going, Israel will hold fast to its time-tested method of "wait and see."

In any case, Berthold concludes, for the time being, Iran and its nuclear program are the biggest existential threat to Israel.

Author: Thomas Kohlmann/ db
Editor: Michael Lawton

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