After much agonizing, Israel Defense Forces intelligence officers came up with a name for the upheaval going on in the Arab world. The concept of "Arab Spring," with its positive connotations, turned them off from the outset. And "Islamic Winter" sounded too definitive. So they settled on a neutral term: shake-up.
The Military Intelligence appraisal for 2012, recently presented to political decision makers, predicts the shake-up will continue throughout next year. After the fall of three regimes in North Africa - Tunisia, Egypt and Libya - the domino effect might spill over the Suez Canal to the other side of the Middle East and into Asia. Rapid change is already under way in Yemen, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to step down after being wounded in a rebel assassination attempt. It now appears very likely that Syria is next: Assuming he gets out of the country alive, Bashar Assad might resign, in keeping with the Yemen model.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who reads all the intelligence assessments, has been saying all month that Assad will fall "within weeks." Before that, he said it would be a matter of months. "That family's role is over," Barak declared.
When the upheaval in Syria first began, Israel's initial reaction was "better the devil you know." This was based in part on the IDF's recommendation that politicians should reach a peace treaty with Assad that will call for returning the entire Golan Heights to Syria. But the more Assad butchers his own people, the more he is perceived for what he is: a bloodthirsty despot whose fall will be first and foremost a blow to Iran's radical axis.
"Assad will not survive," a senior MI officer says bluntly. "There is no conceivable way he can extricate himself."
For its part, Israeli intelligence had described the Syrian regime as a Middle Eastern version of "The Sopranos": violent and corrupt, but functioning because it serves those who enjoy its profits.
In retrospect, the turning point in Syria appears to have been the massacre of civilian opponents in Hama some three months ago, during Ramadan. More than 100 people are being killed every week, on average, and the total number of civilian deaths is reported to be over 5,000. The demonstrators appear to have overcome their fear and are continuing to take to the streets despite the clear risk of being shot. Thousands of soldiers are believed to have defected, most of them along the border with Jordan.
Growing international intervention, particularly by the Arab states, is targeting Assad with increasing sanctions. The most likely scenario now appears to be that he will flee the country; alternately, his regime may collapse amid the ongoing bloodshed.
All of this is a serious setback for Iran, which made inroads on other fronts (Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt ) by persistently subverting the old regimes. Tehran is very worried about the events unfolding in Damascus; indeed, behind the scenes, the Iranians are helping Assad in his efforts to quell the resistance. Hezbollah, which has been showing signs of restlessness in Lebanon, is also concerned about Assad's troubles.
It is too early to say which other countries will experience their own revolutions, though it is clear that regional tension will persist throughout 2012. Jordan is "challenged," but still looks relatively stable, according to MI. Unlike Assad, King Abdullah has launched initiatives that have reduced the intensity of the opposition.
The most pronounced development across the region is the rise of political Islam. In Tunisia, where it all began, an almost perfect revolution was carried out, with little violence, and ultimately a moderate Islamist party won the general elections. The first round of elections in Egypt produced a major victory for the Islamist bloc, while Libya is being wracked by tribal warfare threatening the structure of the state - even after Muammar Gadhafi was ousted and killed. Indeed, the very concept of the Arab nation-state is now being tested across the region.
Along with the rise of Islamism, MI discerns Arab awareness of weakening American influence. A motley crew of actors is now meddling in the Middle East: Russians, Chinese, Europeans, Turks and Iranians - and Israel, too. We are at nothing less than a historic turning point, which necessitates a conceptual shift, a different means of monitoring events and long-term IDF deployment.
Israeli intelligence, in particular, faces new difficulties. Until now, its experts were able to analyze the Arab leaders, their decision makers and their advanced weapon acquisitions. But now, the citizens have also entered the equation. The idea of the public as a mass, as a power, has changed how the Middle East works. Neither MI nor any other body predicted the timing of all this.
The new Middle East will also have major implications for the IDF. The army will need to become more flexible and capable of handling a broad range of scenarios: from conventional warfare - which looks less likely in the years ahead - to terrorist and guerrilla confrontations, and threats to Israel's legitimacy in the form of border demonstrations, which are in practice deliberate provocations, and a massive influx of refugees driven by a civil war. If Mubarak's fall was a bad strategic development, however, Assad's might increase the chances for a political agreement with his successor.
The regional developments will also affect how Israel treats the Palestinians. A future military operation in Gaza would have to take into consideration the opposition of the Egyptian public and the pressure this would bring to bear on the new government in Cairo. Every such military move will be dependent upon a regional stopwatch that limits the IDF's room to maneuver and its freedom of operation.
Heeding the people
Of all the locations from which Al Jazeera broadcast over the past year, the West Bank unsurprisingly remained the quietest and most stable (if we overlook the Jewish hilltop hooligans ). The Gaza Strip also enjoyed quiet, albeit not to the same extent. Neither Palestinian regime - Hamas in the Strip, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank - faces any significant internal threats. There have not even been demonstrations against these two entities, which took power through free elections but whose legitimacy expired long ago. Neither allows freedom of the press, it's too soon to talk about elections, and basic human rights are systematically violated, especially in Gaza.
The Arab Spring has not yet reached the territories, even though the leaders of Fatah and Hamas realize they can no longer ignore public opinion, which is calling for unity. Accordingly, they are hinting about wanting reconciliation and are even willing to talk about elections, though these appear a long way off. The public believes unity is more important than fighting the Israeli occupation and the settlements, and the leaders are responding accordingly.
Hamas, which in recent weeks made a strategic decision to break away from Syria, wants to come across as more moderate, far from the scenes of violent revolution and the lynching of Fatah activists from June 2007. Fatah and Hamas recognize that the status quo - the shaky security and economic situation in Gaza; the political deadlock, and the settlements and economic instability in the West Bank - could blow up in their face. So they are trying to keep the public happy, as witnessed in Hamas' willingness to compromise in the Gilad Shalit deal and its efforts to preserve quiet on the Israeli front, as well as the PA's hapless attempt to obtain United Nations recognition and its refusal to resume negotiations with Israel.
The shake-up has brought Gazans one bit of glad tidings: the partial opening of the border with Egypt, which enables them to go abroad. Due to the smuggling boom from Sinai, Hamas can afford to stop importing some goods from Israel and bring them into Gaza via the tunnels. The construction industry in Gaza is picking up steam, thanks to the large quantities of steel and cement coming through the tunnels. Brand-new cars, smuggled in from Libya and Egypt, can be seen on the streets of Gaza. A Gaza Strip resident told Haaretz this week that the smuggled vehicles include Hummers, "and when they pass, people in the street stop and look."
Maybe it's springtime in Gaza, too.
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