BICOM Expert View: Turmoil in the Middle East – An Israeli Perspective



Throughout the Middle East, dramatic events are unfolding. Across the globe, governments are concerned as to where this revolutionary energy will lead the region. Where will it hit next? Will the initial wave of enthusiasm bear the fruits of democracy, or ultimately give way to non-democratic forces and further radicalisation?

The expert view provided here by Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog, a BICOM Senior Visiting Fellow, analyses the transition in the region, in particular Egypt, and explores the possible effects on Israel and the peace process.

This ‘BICOM Expert View’ is the first in a series which aims to capitalise on the unique understanding of regional specialists who can provide unrivalled insights into complex regional topics.


BICOM Expert View: Turmoil in the Middle East – An Israeli Perspective

By Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Michael Herzog

Across the Middle East, dramatic events of historic magnitude are unfolding. Across the globe, governments are wondering where the erupting revolutionary energy will lead this region, so rich with oil and so poor with democracy and governance. Where will it hit next? Will the initial wave of enthusiasm bear the fruits of democracy or ultimately give way to non-democratic forces and further radicalisation?

Whilst pundits are debating these questions, it is worth reminding ourselves of what Chou Enlai, the first prime minister of Communist China, once quipped when asked to comment on the French revolution: “It is too early to make a judgement…”

However, it is quite evident that people across the Middle East, long frustrated by oppressive regimes, are rising against a variety of basic maladies characterising the region1: the denial of dignity to the people and the lack of proper, clean governance, as well as basic freedoms, jobs and social safety nets. This revolution is mostly carried out by young masses that connect, inspire and organise through the internet and social networks. Yet, in a region lacking a culture or tradition of democracy and without coherent leadership and platform, beyond toppling rulers, it is not clear where this revolution is headed.

Even though the upheaval is focused inwards, Israel strongly believes it will feel a direct impact. Israelis have always held that a democratic Middle East will improve the prospects for peace and stability across the region and for Israel in particular. Nevertheless, they tend to focus on concerns rather than hopes, given their proximity to the revolutionary theatres, the strategic challenges they have been facing and their experiences over the years. Most of all, they are concerned about the transition from dictatorship to democracy in a region so rife with anti-democratic forces.

Egypt: The Test Case

Egypt is viewed by Israel as the most important test case for transition in the region. Not only is Egypt an immediate neighbour, sharing a 150-mile-long border with Israel, but it is also the heart of the Arab world and a hugely important regional actor. Egypt has always been the vanguard of emerging trends in the Middle East, as the birthplace of authoritarian military rule, Pan-Arabism, Islamism and now popular revolt against dictatorship. After the 1973 war, Egypt, with the backbone of an alliance with the United States, became the leader of the moderate Arab camp, the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel and an important supporter of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty significantly widened Israel’s margin of security, since it removed the threat of war with the strongest Arab military force.

The fact that the transition in Egypt is managed by the military and secular forces has tempered initial Israeli worries of a possible Islamist takeover or the abrogation of the peace treaty. The military have publicly pledged to adhere to the peace treaty and advocate maintaining close ties with the US. However, Israelis still have good reason to be concerned about the following:

  • The nature of relations in the face of regional challenges: Even though Egypt dictated a cold peace, in recent years Egypt and Israel developed close coordination in order to counter radical Islamism in the region, most noteworthy vis-a-vis Hamas rule in Gaza, which both have considered a threat to their national security. All of this coordination is now under question. Strong anti-Israel sentiments in the Egyptian public – long fostered by Mubarak’s regime – are likely to express themselves in the policy of any future Egyptian government, and Egypt-in-transition will be unable to play the same significant supportive role in the peace process. This is all the more true if the Muslim Brotherhood, who object to the very concept of peace with Israel, become part of a ruling coalition.
  • Deteriorating security situation in the Sinai: The power vacuum in Cairo has allowed for a dangerous deterioration in the security situation in the Sinai, manifesting itself in a series of violent clashes between Bedouin elements and Egyptian security forces. In one incident, an armed group from Gaza was reportedly arrested on its way to attack Israeli targets. Smuggling through the Egypt-Gaza border has also intensified. Israel sees mounting terror threats from Sinai.
  • The nature of bilateral commercial relations: Almost one-fifth of Israel’s electric power generation has been imported from Egypt as natural gas. The flow of gas through a northern Sinai pipeline was stopped on 5 February after the nearby Egypt-Jordan natural gas pipeline was sabotaged. There were repeated delays in its resumption, leading Israelis to suspect that political, and not just technical or security considerations were involved. The question poses itself: what does this mean for future energy, economic and trade relations?

Whilst the US, Europe and the international community had little if any say in the uprising itself, they have an important role to play in ensuring that transition in Egypt is directed towards democracy, maintains peaceful relations with Israel and does not give a free pass to radical Islamist forces in the region. Egypt relies heavily on outside assistance, mainly economic, and this should be used to help guide transition. In this context, given the US deficit and economic difficulties coupled with Egyptian public sensitivities, the EU should play a more dominant role through its existing vehicles to push for simultaneous political and economic reforms, so as to ease transition. They should also update the joint EU-Egypt Action Plan of 2007 with new priorities and larger upfront investments, and generate funds for reconstruction and development. For its part, the US would do well to recalibrate its assistance to Egypt to focus more on democracy, civil society, governance and economic needs, and relatively less on military assistance.

The Regional Context  

The regional upheaval erupted in the midst of an ongoing critical struggle between the pragmatic Arab centre, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the radical axis led by Iran. Even before the eruption, the pragmatic Arab centre had weakened due to aging leaderships in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a fragile Jordan and a divided Palestinian Authority. This picture was exacerbated by a growing regional perception of decline in American power and influence.

The void was filled partly by radical forces but mostly by actors such as Turkey, Qatar and even Syria, who positioned themselves between the conflicting axes and sometimes as go-betweens. In so doing, they essentially helped the more radical forces. This manifested itself, for example, when Turkey ran an independent initiative to mediate with Iran over its nuclear programme, in contradiction to US-EU moves to promote UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.

With Egypt now in transition and Saudi Arabia fearing the next wave, the pragmatic Arab centre is hardly existent and the perception of American weakness has deepened. Extremist forces across the region may be energised unless they themselves face the heat of revolutionary fervour.

What could and should be done to avert serious disruption to the strategic balance in the Middle East?

First, the international community should invest in regional transition, help balance it, and encourage reform in autocracies closer to the West and important to it, such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan. It would also do well to invest in programmes designed to promote democratic values. It should strive to apply basic universal rules and lay a threshold for the inclusion of Islamist forces in the democratic process, so as to mitigate the risk of those processes being abused or hijacked.

Second, the outcome in Libya, now centre stage in the Middle East, is critical to where the region as a whole will be headed. If Gaddafi wins the civil war by slaughtering his own people as the West stand idly by, rising masses across the region, especially in Iran, may lose heart in their struggle and faith in the West. Autocratic rulers will conclude that the best way to survive is to use brutal force.

Third, Iran should also feel the heat. Elevating current international sanctions to include human rights and democracy violations, in the spirit of winds blowing throughout the region, would send a powerful message of support and encouragement to reform-seeking people  in Iran.

Finally, the international community should help reset the stage for the resumption of the Israeli-Arab peace process.

The Peace Process

Israelis are publicly debating whether the regional turmoil calls for an effort to revive the peace process with the Palestinians or a wait-and-see approach in a period of regional transition. Key to this is the consideration of whether the fundamental stability to sustain agreements exists, or whether a lack of moderate Arab backing for the process and seeming American weakness make this unlikely.

After some vacillation, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to have concluded that the former approach is more suitable to the moment. Not moving entails high risks and there are also potential opportunities in the new situation. Where Netanyahu will take this conclusion is not yet clear.

Further stalemate will enhance Palestinian unilateralism. This unilateral push for international recognition of Palestinian statehood would likely undermine the prospects of future negotiations at the expense of both sides’ interests and deepen the current trend of Israel’s isolation and delegitimisation. Furthermore, under the banner of liberty now hoisted across the Middle East, Palestinians may be driven to yet another popular uprising. The parties should be encouraged to return to the table rather than adopt a unilateral approach, which may escalate the situation rather than lead to actual Palestinian statehood.

Fresh concerns about regional stability may be pushing both parties to reconsider their positions. Here lies an opportunity. The parties, however, need help from the outside, by way of a coordinated American-European effort, in determining agreed-upon terms of reference for the peace talks and providing an international umbrella for their resumption. Simultaneously, all parties should increase support for the bottom-up capacity and institution-building process led by Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad in the West Bank.

It is also time to revisit the Israeli-Syrian peace track. Given the shaky regional balance of power, it is now doubly important to drive Syria away from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah towards the moderate camp, and to help stabilise the explosive situation in Lebanon.

One conclusion is shared by most Israelis: peace treaties should encompass peoples, not only governments, and be fortified by solid security arrangements.


The Middle East has embarked on a long, difficult journey, rife with risks and opportunities. Mindful of the risks, known all too well to Israelis, the international community, under the leadership of the US and Europe and together with regional partners, should seize the moment. They should play an active role so as to help guide transition in the region towards both democracy and stability. The stakes are all too high and the outcome of the regional struggle of forces is far from being determined.

Since 1993, Brigadier General (Ret.) Michael Herzog has participated in most of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians, whilst serving in senior positions in Israel’s Ministry of Defence. He participated in the Wye Plantation summit, the Camp David summit, the Taba negotiations, the Annapolis summit and subsequent negotiations.

From June 2009 to March 2010, he served as special emissary for Israel’s prime minister and minister of defence in the efforts to relaunch the peace process. As well as being a Senior Visiting Fellow at BICOM, he is an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.


1: These maladies have been reflected in a series of Arab Human Development Reports, prepared by Arab experts and published annually by the UN since 2002.

The opinions expressed in this BICOM Expert View are those of the author and not necessarily those of BICOM as a whole.