Israel and the Middle East, 2005: A Strategic Overview

A major factor shaping Israel’s security environment is the internal forces at play within the Arab countries. The leading issue on the agenda is a worldview that holds al-wataniya (nationalism) above all else. The interest of the nation now takes precedence over interests of pan-Arabism, the Arab world, and the Arab League. Urdun awalan (“Jordan first”) is the initiative of King Abdullah. The same is true of the call of Lubnan l’lubnani-in (“Lebanon for the Lebanese”). Such phenomena signify a turn inward. Foremost on the agenda is safeguarding the national homeland and promoting the necessary changes.

If the Palestinians were once portrayed as the victims and Arafat was heralded as an Arab symbol, the Palestinian issue has now been relegated to a secondary role. Other voices are sounded that reflect increasing doubt about the effectiveness of resistance. Debates within Hamas and Islamic Jihad currently include speculation that perhaps their future lies in the political system, and that they may therefore also need, for the moment, to give up firing Kassam rockets and pursuing active resistance. Also in a unique position today is Hizballah in Lebanon, which understands that its existence is guaranteed if it is enmeshed in the political system in Lebanon, where the group has two Shiite government ministers in its service.

The Egyptian Jihad, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, merged with al-Qaeda in January 2001, nine months prior to the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. The new organization was called Qaedat al-Jihad, and Ayman al-Zawahiri is the organization’s number two man. Junud al-Sham (Soldiers of al-Sham) is actually al-Qaeda in Syria. Additional groups linked to al-Qaeda in the region include Egyptian Jihad soldiers at Jabal Hilal, in the center of the Sinai Peninsula, and the Egyptian Unity and Jihad group. There is also Abu Musa Zarqawi’s group that operates in Jordan and is al-Qaeda’s representative in Iraq.

Today, the Arab world is a target for terrorism. Israel is located in the center of the Islamic world in which the caliphate should be established. The struggle in Iraq and the ejection of the Americans is merely a preparatory stage for the establishment of the caliphate. The confrontation with Israel is of particular importance to al-Qaeda for both theological and strategic reasons.

A connection with al-Qaeda could inflict great damage on Palestinian interests. Al-Qaeda’s struggle will not end with the ejection of American forces from the region, but rather only after a proper Islamic regime is established on the ruins of Israel and the current Arab regimes.

The bloc in the north – Lebanon, Hizballah, and Syria – is disintegrating. Syria has lost Lebanon. This is important from our perspective because it means that an independent Lebanese interest is emerging in many areas. My assessment is that Hamas is currently at one of its lowest points ever in terms of operational capacity, though not in terms of motivation. Similarly, this does not mean that it is unable to carry out an attack when it decides to do so.

The elements responsible for calm between Israel and the Palestinians at the moment are the IDF, the Israeli security apparatus, and Hamas. I would like to make clear that no security body within the Palestinian Authority is playing a part in maintaining the calm. This includes Abbas. The preservation of calm has been an independent decision of Hamas, which will be able to reactivate the violence when it decides to do so.

Excerpted from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies-Tel Aviv University

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