In every Arab country where the old regime falls, its place will be taken sooner or later by a radical Islamic regime. At the moment, there is no alternative.By Alexander BlighLike the citizens of other democratic countries, the people of Israel are following events in the Middle East with interest, and rooting for human rights advocates in neighboring countries. It does not, however, appear as if we will be able to share in the near future, if ever, in the happiness of the rebels at having their basic rights fulfilled.
Even after rebels have toppled the regimes of several countries, and appear poised to do the same in additional states, it seems that all of these protest movements share a common denominator: They give vent to the inhabitants’ desire for democratic rule, but they have not managed to put in place a stable political leadership, nor can they muster the military might capable of contending with a regime determined to stay in power. Therefore, for example, European countries were forced to intervene in Libya, in an effort to prevent a massacre of the insurrectionists. Other Arab leaders, such as Syrian President Bashar Assad, may well resort to similar steps as those taken by Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi.
The protesters in each country wear the military down and are causing disaffection as units defect to the ranks of the rebels. Therefore, the only force that is truly capable of acting in these countries is radical Islam. The timing of the Islamic takeover of key countries like Egypt and Tunisia will be the result of a tactical consideration − not a strategic decision. To put it simply: In every Arab country where the old regime falls, its place will be taken sooner or later by a radical Islamic regime. At the moment there is no alternative, and no conditions that will allow democratic movements to develop.One generally finds two organized forces in place in all of the Arab states, divided between themselves: the military, which is a branch of the old and hated regime; and radical Islam, which is sometimes split into sub-factions, but whose members are united in believing that religious law must be imposed on the state and that the infidels must be fought.
This pessimistic but realistic reading demands that we take a close look from an Israeli perspective at the underlying significance of the processes taking place in Arab countries.
Like most of the West, Israel is dependent on four strategic maritime passages into our region: the Black Sea straits, which allow the Russian navy access to the Mediterranean, over which the sovereign is Turkey’s Islamic-tinged government; the Suez Canal, controlled by Egypt’s interim government, which will most likely be replaced by a radical Islamic regime; the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and is not far from Yemen, the country whose regime is destined to be next in the region to fall; and the Strait of Hormuz, the opening to the Persian Gulf begins, the most important route for transporting oil in the world, and which since the Khomeini revolution of 1979 has been controlled on one side by Iran’s radical regime.
The fact that the naval blockade of Israel during the Yom Kippur War was enforced in Bab-el-Mandeb, and that just last month Iranian warships passed through the Suez Canal, means that Israel must engage in strategic thinking to prepare for any possible conflict.
Even if in global terms its oil consumption is negligible, Israel − which takes pride in being the forward base for the West and a bulwark of democracy in the Middle East − must draw up plans to secure the oil routes in our region.
Moreover, Israel must operate under the assumption that the Islamic regime that will arise in Egypt will try to win international legitimacy. For that reason, though the new government there will be unlikely to announce that it is canceling the peace treaty with Israel, it can be expected to move to erode it in such a way that the responsibility for its collapse will fall on Israel. Under these circumstances it is Israel’s duty to pursue a moderate and cautious policy: It must close one eye to slight violations of the peace agreement, while publicly expressing an interest in Egypt’s continuing role as a mediator in political processes in our region. At the same time, Israel must finish building the border fence between the two countries and thus minimize potential points of friction.
Even should the new regime in Egypt be determined to cancel the agreement, it is proper that Israel and its citizens, as well as any international body that is interested in what goes on in our region, take care that any measures Israel takes do not have an influence on a negative Egyptian decision, should one be reached.
Whatever political developments may ensue, it is vital to understand that the entire region is now operating according to completely new political rules. Such a state of affairs requires new strategic thinking and some advance decision-making on Israel’s part. Now is the time to deal with this.
Prof. Alexander Bligh was the adviser on Arab affairs to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and is now on the faculty of the Middle Eastern studies department at Ariel University Center of Samaria.