Analysis

Israel’s Unlikely Place in a Rapidly Changing Middle East

Stories about friction between Israel and some of its neighbors have grabbed headlines, but the story behind the scenes is very different.

An Israeli military vehicle drives along the Egyptian border in 2013.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A laconic statement issued Sunday by the Shin Bet security service, which received scant media coverage, may reveal something about the nature of the trilateral relationship between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Though the media focuses mainly on friction between Israel and its Arab neighbors – the ouster of an Egyptian lawmaker who dared invite the Israeli ambassador to dinner; the anger of Jordan’s king over Israel’s conduct on the Temple Mount last fall – the behind-the-scenes picture is evidently very different.

The Shin Bet’s statement reported the arrest, more than a month earlier, of Mahmoud Nazel, from the West Bank town of Qabatiyah. Nazel, who belongs to a small organization that broke off from Fatah’s military wing, went to Cairo to study in 2007. There, he joined Hamas’ military wing and, on orders from its Gaza-based headquarters, recruited other West Bank Palestinians studying in Egypt. He sent them to the Gaza Strip for military training, after which they returned to the West Bank “to establish a military infrastructure there,” the statement said.

In other words, this was part of Hamas’ effort to set up sleeper cells in the West Bank, with the dual purpose of committing terror attacks against Israel and undermining the Palestinian Authority’s rule in the West Bank. In 2014, Israel arrested a major Hamas network in the West Bank engaged in similar endeavors; the information gained from interrogating the almost 100 suspects arrested was shared with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who, at the height of that summer’s war in Gaza, publicly denounced Hamas for it.

Nazel, however, was arrested at the Allenby Bridge as he was crossing from Jordan to the West Bank, on his way home from Egypt. Israel obviously won’t divulge information about third-party cooperation in its efforts to gather intelligence on Nazel’s activities. But the current Middle East chaos has sharpened the divide between rival regional alliances, even if some of those alliances remain under the table.

Israel, Egypt, Jordan and, to some extent, the PA have a common interest in countering both the Islamic State and Hamas. Indeed, Egypt is even more hostile to Hamas’ leadership in Gaza than Israel is, as evidenced by its accusation this week that Hamas trained members of the cell that assassinated Egypt’s top prosecutor last June.

This hostility has led Egypt to keep its only border crossing with Gaza closed to Palestinian traffic most days of the year. And even if Israel were to draft its own diplomatic initiative regarding Gaza, Egypt would likely oppose any plan to significantly ease the Strip’s economic woes – like the idea of building a seaport in Gaza that was recently advocated by Israel’s defense establishment.

Though Israel’s natural tendency is to emphasize the dangers of every new situation, in reality it now has a quite a few opportunities it didn’t have before. Circumstances in the Middle East are changing rapidly and unexpectedly; just trying to keep track of all the players meddling in Syria’s civil war undoubtedly causes Israeli intelligence agencies major headaches.

A year or two ago, for instance, nobody would have predicted that Saudi Arabia would cut off aid to the Lebanese army or persuade the Gulf Cooperation Council to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

Paradoxically, the GCC’s dramatic announcement about Hezbollah coincided with the Israel Defense Forces’ announcement that it now views Hezbollah as an army.

The Israeli debate, of course, is taking place on an entirely different plane: The IDF’s statement was meant to enable a better understanding of how Hezbollah thinks and acts, so Israel will be better prepared to fight it in the future. It certainly didn’t mean the IDF thinks Hezbollah will no longer aim its fire at Israeli civilians – a terrorist act in every respect – the next time war breaks out.

Nevertheless, Israel will apparently have to clarify to the international community that its professional assessment of Hezbollah’s capabilities is not the same as its moral verdict on the organization.