The Middle East: How does Israel look at the crises in Syria and Egypt?
Interview with Eldad Beck
“Whatever illusions the Israeli public had about reaching peace with its Arab neighbours are really fading away. Many Israelis asks themselves why Israel should make more compromises in a situation where everything around them is burning.”
Eldad Beck is Middle East correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, ynetnews.com and author of the 2009 book “Beyond the Border: Travel to forbidden lands”, where he travelled to places in the Muslim world usually forbidden to Israelis
Interview by David Jano
TQT: An American attack on Syria seems imminent. What do you think will happen in the coming days?
Beck: It seems like we inevitably are heading towards a limited American military operation in Syria, which would probably be targeting certain military facilities of the Assad regime. However, I do not have a feeling that the Americans are interested in an overall operation, especially not the current administration after having reduced its other activities in this part of the world. As much as possible the Americans will try to control the situation and avoid having to deal with a large-scale conflict. And I am not so sure that the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Hezbollah, have any interest in spreading the conflict in the Middle East. They are making flamboyant statements, but none of the parties are interested in a conflict, as none of them have the capabilities to encounter the Americans or Israel. One also has to take into account the fact that Syria, Iran and Hezbollah mostly do not react to military actions against them, but instead take the time to choose the timing and the place of their revenge.
TQT: Why do you think the Assad regime has crossed the red line by using chemical weapons, as they knew that this action would probably lead to an American reaction?
Beck: I think that Assad did get the impression that he could do whatever he wanted. It is absolutely pathetic that 100.000 people have died already in Syria, and the US has done nothing and only now due to the horrible deaths of people being victims to chemical attacks there comes a reaction. It is not even the first time that reports have shown the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Probably Assad thought that he could cross the red line and then wait for the reaction. He is testing the limits of the American administration and their will to being actively involved in the Middle East.
TQT: What is the Israeli reaction to the turmoil in Syria? We saw former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman condemning the chemical attacks, but is Israel on the same page as the Americans when it comes to an attack on Syria?
Beck: I suppose as in other military operations in the Middle East led by the Americans Israel would be asked not to be included and not to react in away that might sabotage the operation. If Syria or any of its allies decides to react by attacking Israel, of course the Israelis would have to react. The Israelis are very much caught in a catch, which actually goes for any development in the Middle East right now: Whatever the Israeli government would say can be interpreted of any of the sides in the region as proof of the other side [in their conflict] being an Israeli agent. In the Middle East today there is nothing worse than this accusation. Israel is in a situation, where it cannot say anything officially – Netanyahu has once again ordered all of his cabinet not to comment on the situation in Syria and Lieberman allowed himself to make these comments as he is no longer a part of the government. However, I think that the public Israeli opinion is really struck by the pictures and the videos coming from Syria, and you can see that there is a mounting call among the Israeli population for the authorities to do more in order to help Syrian refugees. Whatever illusions the Israeli public had about reaching peace with its Arab neighbours are really fading away. Many Israelis asks themselves why Israel should make more compromises in a situation where everything around them is burning.
TQT: American attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq were followed by new tensions in the Middle East. Now a country that borders Israel might be the target. Is Israel especially concerned?
Beck: There is a deep concern among the Israeli population. Things are not only happening in Damascus or Cairo, but attacks on Israeli soil have also been coming from Lebanon and the Sinai. Israel is directly concerned as to what is happening close to its borders. I think that the Israelis are very much appreciative of the fact, that despite the fire around them, the situation in Israel is till stable.
TQT: Recently Israel attacked Syria from the sky to stop the transfer of military weapons from Syria to Hezbollah xxexplain with no Syrian retaliation. Do you think that the Americans will pursue the same kind of attacks? If so, will it really matter and effectively hurt the Syrian regime?
Beck: It depends on the targets chosen. I think the Americans have the possibility to hurt Assad in a very serious way. However, I am not so sure that they have an interest in completely destroying his regime, as no one knows what might follow him. The Israelis attacked Syria several times mainly because of the probability that Syria would transfer military rockets to Hezbollah. It was very much directed against such targets. The fact that Syria has chosen not to react to any of the Israeli attacks is for me an indication of the lack of willingness from the Syrians to broaden the conflict. Getting in to a military conflict with Israel would be disastrous for a very torn and tired Syrian army.
TQT: In the past Israel tried to intervene in the civil war in Lebanon. Do you believe Israel is supporting groups in Syria?
Beck: I would not be surprised if certain groups in Syria would try to contact Israel. The Israelis would very carefully think about how risky such an involvement would be. The Lebanese example hopefully showed Israel that getting involved in such complicated situations could only backfire if you do it in a way that is not smart.
TQT: Egypt. What do you think about the accusations that Israel was behind the fall of Morsi?
Beck The statements made by for instance the Turkish president Erdogan shows the very fragile state in which many Egyptians and the current Turkish leadership are right now. With his stupid fantasies, Erdogan has made it very clear that he is an anti-Semite. Pretending that it was Israeli policy to undermine Morsi is sick and one really has to hope that Erdogan will not destroy Turkey. The Egyptian population has also expressed very typical statements around the Middle East – sinking into fantasies that Jews and Israelis are responsible for everything happening in the region. Instead of taking responsibilities for its own actions, Middle Eastern leaders and populations keep blaming Israel. This is absolutely absurd, as Israel had nothing at all to do with the fall of Morsi. Quite on the contrary, Israel is doing everything to stay out of situations like that.
TQT: Even so, Israel might not see it as such a bad thing that Morsi have been ousted? The relations must be better with the Egyptian army back in place, than they were with Morsi and the Brotherhood?
Beck: Astonishingly enough, and this is one of the reasons that led to the fall of Morsi, he did not annul the peace treaty with Israel. Historically the Brotherhood had always condemned the Camp David Accords. And to a certain extent, he kept a policy of military cooperation with Israel although with a very low profile xxok?. Certain issues were of interest, not only to Egypt, but also mainly to the Muslim Brotherhood. It had absolutely nothing to do with trying to satisfy Israel or the US, but in trying to soft guard his own regime. Now it seems that the situation in Sinai has become really problematic – with different Islamist/Salafist entities and Hamas being active trying to hurt both Egyptian authorities and the Israelis. There is a larger ground of tactical cooperation between Israel and Egypt with both countries trying to eliminate this danger.
TQT: What will the ramifications be of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi? For instance will the relationship between Egypt and the US be terminated?
Beck: If the Americans cancel their alliance with Egypt it will be a big mistake. It was not a coup as we classically define it. There was a popular demand to act against the Brotherhood who was using democracy in order to destroy democracy and I think fortunately enough the army moved in to stop a very dangerous development. If the Americans and the Europeans would punish Egypt in times where they should be supportive I think it will be more proof of the fact that the American administration and the EU are far from understanding the reality in the Middle East.
TQT: What will happen in Egypt next?
Beck: It is difficult to say of course, but I think the army will try to convince the world that it does not have the intention to maintain the power. However, I am still convinced that at some point the current army chief, Sissi, will resign from his post and himself be a candidate for the presidency and then Egypt will go back to a time like under Mubarak. Yet I think the leadership of the Egyptian army is smart enough to understand that there is no way to go completely back to the days of Mubarak and his predecessors. They will try to satisfy the needs of the youth that does not wish to live like the past generations.
TQT: What about the last member of the triangle in the Sinai? We have already talked about Egypt and Israel, but what about Hamas? How have the latest development in Egypt affected the situation in Gaza?
Beck: It has affected the situation very extensively. Hamas has lost its main support from the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is essentially a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore both sides were coordinating whatever moves they were making very tightly. I think that Hamas was counting on more and more help from Egypt, especially if it could have initiated another conflict with Israel. We see that Hamas once again is turning to Iran in order to get support. However, Iran is far away and the Egyptians would be much more effective in controlling the flow of things into Gaza. It could actually be a magnificent chance for Mahmoud Abbas or other Palestinian forces to regain influence in Gaza, yet I am not so sure that the capacity to advance a better relationship with Israel is present at all among the current Palestinian leadership.
TQT: Maybe the situation will go in the opposite direction in Gaza, leading to even more radical groups than Hamas coming to power?
Beck: No. I think that we see signs of tiredness from the population in Gaza. People are fed up with Hamas and would also be fed up with more radical groups. The more radical groups had a free hand in Sinai under Morsi – this is no longer the case. It could change if the Egyptian army falls apart or if it fails to combat these organisations. But right now it will not go in a more radical direction.
Eldad Beck covers Europe and the Middle East for the ledading Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. His articles can be read both in the printed version and on one of the most popular Israeli media outlets online, ynetnews.com. In 2009 he published the acclaimed book “Beoynd the Border: Travels to forbidden lands” about his journeys to parts of the Muslim world that usually do not allow Israelis an entrance. He currently lives in Berlin.
David Jano has a Masters Degree in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Southern Denmark. His articles on the Middle East and Israel have appeared in such publications as TQT, RÆSON, Jyllands-Posten, Middle East Insights, Sharnoffs Global Views and Times of Israel. He has provided commentary on Radio 24/7, DR P1, DR 2 and Tv2 News.