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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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Israel faces threats from the north and south

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Instability, chaos, violent upheaval, economic failure and massive uncertainty continue to plague much of the Arab world. “Arab Spring” is a term rarely heard these days, except in an ironic sense. In this climate, Israel remains a rare case of stability, even as surrounding strategic threats mount.

The most pressing security concern for Israel is the looming possibility that, as Syria’s civil war rages, the country’s chemical weapons could fall into the hands of rebel Sunni Islamic forces or be transferred to the Shia forces of Hezbollah, which, under the guidance of Iran, support Damascus. Either way, Israel has made it clear that any attempt to transfer such deadly weapons would be a “red line” and would be countered.

On Jan. 27, Israel completed the deployment of two Iron Dome missile batteries in the north as protection against missiles from Syria and Lebanon that could carry chemical warheads.

Israel has also drawn a red line at the transfer of advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to Hezbollah. These missiles pose a severe risk to Israeli fighter aircraft and are considered to be “game changers” in the regional strategic equation. On Jan. 30, western media reported that Israeli jets had struck a convoy carrying Russian SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to Lebanon near the border. The Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin cited Israeli analyst Mark Heller’s remark that Israel (which remained silent about the attack) was sending a message to Iran as much as to Hezbollah and Syria.

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Israel is also concerned about ongoing turmoil in Egypt. What began as peaceful protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Jan. 25 soon took an ugly turn. On Jan. 27, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi declared a state of emergency in three cities – Suez, Port Said and Ismailia – following anti-government protests and riots that left scores dead. Violent clashes even returned to Cairo.

“The past two days in Egypt looked at times like a slow-motion repeat of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak two years ago: the marches, the gas, the shouted demands to topple the regime, and a miscalculated response by [Morsi]… Two years of transition and seven months of [Muslim] Brotherhood administration have failed to restore a sense of accountability,” the Economist wrote (Jan. 28).

By the middle of last week, events seemed to be spiralling out of control, with Morsi floundering and speculation swirling about whether the army might step in. Much of the media coverage focused on the clash between Islamists and secular reformers. But what’s really driving popular discontent is the failure of the government to address the tremendous economic distress gripping the country.

In the Jan. 29 National Post, Matthew Fisher noted: “The economic prospects of young Egyptians have been grim for years. According to statistics compiled by the government, the unemployment rate of those between the ages of 15 and 29 reached a staggering 77.5 per cent last year – against an official national unemployment rate of 12.6 per cent.”

While this is true, the economy has only declined since the Brotherhood gained power. Tourism, upon which Egypt relied for billions in revenue, has died. Foreign investors, never large in number, have mostly fled. And the International Monetary Fund, which pledged almost $5 billion to Egypt, insists on austerity measures, including Cairo’s significantly reducing its large subsidies for necessities such as fuel and wheat – a move that would further strain an already deeply impoverished population.

Fisher said that it’s “unfair to think that Morsi could have turned Egypt’s decrepit economy around after only a few months in power,” but he doesn’t point to even one positive step Morsi and the Brotherhood have taken on their own. Indeed, they were more concerned about consolidating power and ramming through a new constitution written by the Brotherhood.

The failure of governments across the Arab world to deliver on the real needs of their citizens is nothing new. Neither are the terrible regional consequences that such instability breeds.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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