Mideast Popular Unrest May Be Rolling Into the Palestinian Territories

Muammar Gadhafi is still in power, and Iran and many parts of the Arab world are roiling. Could the regional unrest spill over into the Palestinian territories and lead to a Tahrir Square in Ramallah?

Just a week ago, most of the world's media outlets were reporting that Libya's regime was falling. But as of yesterday morning, Muammar Gadhafi was still clinging to power in parts of Tripoli and fighting his opponents. His rule will probably end, but there is no knowing when.

Lebanon and southern Sudan, two regions that were of obsessive interest to the international community through early January, are now barely attracting attention. Nor is Israeli settlement construction a matter of extreme concern these days, despite the recent UN Security Council decision.

Libya protest

For its part, Israel is concerned that terrorist activity could flare up again amid the regional upheaval - including anything from Iranian revenge for the assassinations of nuclear scientists and of senior Hezbollah member Imad Mughniyeh, for which Israel has been blamed, to attacks launched along the Egyptian border. The rare security respite of the past year-plus could end, bolstered by the possible excuse of the deadlock in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's diplomacy.

The idea of popular resistance with little or no violence appeals to young Palestinians in Ramallah and East Jerusalem. Indeed, the Palestinians, who have for some time been making small-scale use of such protests against the separation fence in Bil'in and Na'alin, may try to emulate Tahrir Square on a more ambitious scale. MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta'al ), who took part in the Palestinian demonstrations at the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, hinted as much in an interview with Haaretz. In that earlier round, the Palestinian leadership quickly lost control over grass-roots activists and within days the confrontation snowballed into an armed conflict with the Israel Defense Forces.

This time, however, the Palestinians seem to be holding better cards - perhaps due to the Palestinian Authority's intention to declare unilateral independence toward the end of this year. Riyad al-Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, claimed on Wednesday that by September 150 countries would recognize the Palestinian state.

Meanwhile, Israel barely managed to get the United States to veto the Security Council draft resolution condemning it for building in the settlements. Netanyahu explained this week to critics in his Likud party that he has no intention of "banging his head against the wall" and expanding construction at the moment. That declaration - just like the decision to evacuate settler outposts built on private Palestinian land "immediately" - is a response to pressure from the Obama administration and queries by the High Court of Justice. But readers shouldn't hold their breath waiting for a massive evacuation (Israel has been promising the Americans this since Ehud Barak's administration in 1999 ) or for a far-reaching diplomatic initiative by Netanyahu. But just in case, the far right declared a "day of rage" yesterday, to deter the prime minister.

Despite the crisis with Israel, the PA is continuing to suppress Hamas in the West Bank - for its own reasons. The events in Cairo, and especially the fiery sermon by extremist cleric GYusuf Qaradawi in Tahrir Square, have bolstered the morale of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, but the organization seems to be in no hurry to test Israel's determination. The firing of a Grad missile at Be'er Sheva on February 23 turned out to be a private act of revenge by an Islamic Jihad squad over the killing of its commander.

The Iranian connection

For the outside world, the most worrisome aspect of the so-called Arab "spring" involves the international oil market. For example, the price increases already have compensated Iran for most of its losses due to the new sanctions over its nuclear project. The fall of another Arab regime, in Bahrain or Yemen, for instance, could trigger a large-scale energy crisis. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke explicitly on Wednesday about Iranian involvement in the events in Bahrain and Yemen. If there's a domino effect in the Persian Gulf, the consequences could be even more far-reaching than those stemming from the turmoil in Libya.

In Sana'a, Yemen, thousands have been demonstrating almost daily for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for almost 33 years. Saleh, who cooperated with Washington in fighting Al-Qaida's influence in his country, alleged this week that the demonstrations in the Arab world are being managed "from operation rooms in Tel Aviv and the White House."

On Tuesday afternoon, Iranian security forces again used force to quell demonstrations by hundreds of protesters. The leaders of the Green Movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both former presidential candidates, were arrested this week.

"The demonstrations are continuing and the regime is confused," said Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "The spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, thought the Green Movement was dead and is now discovering he was wrong. The authorities arrested the son of Ayatollah Halhali - one of 1980s Iran's most extreme clerics, who was responsible for the execution of hundreds of people - because he joined the opposition. The son has since disappeared. The regime learned from the revolution in Egypt that it needs to respond quickly to the demonstrators. The Iranians then saw Gadhafi bombing thousands of demonstrators with fighter planes. I doubt that even the Tehran authorities can afford to take similar measures."

On the other hand, Javedanfar says, the Iranian opposition is not yet daring to talk in terms of a revolution. "They are constantly calling for islahath (reforms ). They have not been able to persuade large sectors of the population that they are an alternative to the regime, and they have not linked up with the trade unions - even though the employees of many state institutions, such as the Abadan refineries, have been on an extended strike and the workers have not received their wages in months."

In the meantime, the Revolutionary Guards, the intelligence services and the Iranian media are working strenuously to provoke protests in neighboring countries. The latest issue of the Guards' weekly magazine, Sobh-e-Sadegh, includes an article calling on Saudi Arabia to stop meddling in Bahrain and to prepare for a tsunami against the royal house.

Iranian maps depict Bahrain as the Islamic Republic's 14th province. The Iranian media and Hezbollah's television station Al Manar have been broadcasting round-the-clock news from Bahrain.

"Persian-Arab and Sunni-Shi'ite tension converges in Bahrain," said Prof. Uzi Rabi, head of the department of Middle Eastern and African history and of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. Seventy percent of the population is Shi'ite, but the Sunni minority is in control. The Shi'ites feel deprived. Many of them live in the slums of the capital, Manama, do not get hired for key jobs and certainly are not part of the government. The Iranians tried to topple Bahrain's government as early as 1981, and their fingerprints are discernible now, too. Iran always claimed that the gulf, its home port, is Persian. Tehran looks askance not only at Sunni rule in Bahrain but also at the American military presence there."

Five more years

With the exception of general statements about needing a larger budget, senior IDF General Staff members take a conservative approach. They are calling for caution, so the army won't be taken by surprise as it was in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, which broke out after military training had been minimized.

As for the right policy approach - stagnation or risk-taking - the generals are stingy with their recommendations. Former Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, emphasized the need for diplomatic moves, especially regarding Syria. His successor, Lt. General Benny Gantz, probably holds similar views. But Gantz, whose official retouched Photoshop portrait is slowly replacing the portraits of Gabi Ashkenazi in army offices, is busy preparing the new five-year plan.

It does not appear that violence will erupt along the Egyptian front. Over the short term, that revolution is likely to result in less Egyptian pressure on the Gaza Strip, more attempted terrorist attacks and more African migrants crossing from Sinai into the Negev. Israel's immediate response will be accelerating construction of the fence along the border and reinforcing particular points.

The IDF will, in the meantime, have to devote more thought to operative plans for the Egyptian front (in case the worst-case scenario plays out ), though it's unlikely that structural changes will be called for. The army does not have the manpower to create too many more combat units. Drafting ultra-Orthodox men will not revolutionize anything, no matter what Netanyahu says. Since the 2006 war in Lebanon and Operation Cast Lead two years ago, there has been a considerable increase in teens' motivation to enlist in combat units, and the army has reduced the dropout rate from these units, but the annual draft is stable and limited in number. Raising the age of exemption from reserve duty is out of the question; plans to shorten compulsory service already have been shelved.

If there is a change, it will be the establishment of a southern headquarters. The IDF reestablished two army headquarters after the 2006 war. Now, a third one may be in the offing, at an initial cost of NIS 30 million.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been in positions to influence the IDF's structure for the past several decades: He was head of planning and director of Military Intelligence in the mid-1980s, then he was deputy chief of staff, then the chief of staff who led the army's precision munitions revolution at the beginning of the 1990s, later prime minister - and since 2007 he has been defense minister. Barak frequently reiterates his commitment to building a multilayer defense system to intercept missiles and rockets. The systems are being developed quickly, but the General Staff tends to drag its feet when it comes to allocating budgets for defensive purposes, and such equipment is acquired slowly.

Currently, it does not look like the new five-year plan will be vastly different from the previous plan. It will center on allocations to the air force, notably to purchase F-35 aircraft (funded by U.S. aid ), and to intelligence and technology. The ground forces will try to maintain the limited funding they received after the shock of the war in Lebanon.