As Israel’s premier national-security conference concludes, events in Egypt grow still more chaotic, and attendees depart mulling scenarios for the post-Mubarak era
February 11, 2011, noon: President Hosni Mubarak had not yet stepped down late Thursday night when Israel’s premier national security gathering in Herzliya ended its 11th annual meetings on Israel’s and the region’s security. But the now departed president’s muddled speech late Thursday night in which he appeared to step aside without formally stepping down was an apt coda to Israel’s premier national security gathering in Herzliya this week.
The four days of meetings were an exercise in gloom, as the complexity and enormity of the threats confronting Israel became increasingly evident. Egypt’s cyber-revolution—no matter how it turned out, several analysts suggested—could clearly threaten Israel’s three-decade-old peace with Egypt. Rather than a quasi-credible Jeffersonian democracy, warned Shlomo Avineri, a former director general of the foreign affairs ministry now teaching at Hebrew University, history taught us that a military dictatorship, or chaos, or a government dominated by the anti-Israeli Muslim Brotherhood, or a “combination” thereof were far more likely alternatives.
Plus, whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood eventually came to power as a result of Egypt’s uncertain political transition, several experts argued, any more “democratic” Egyptian government that more closely reflected the views of Egyptians would inevitably be much less friendly toward the Jewish state. It would also most probably be more supportive of Hamas and of Palestinian aspirations in general, less sympathetic toward the American-brokered peace process, and perhaps more reticent about challenging Iran.
While Egypt was the Arab state of most immediate concern, the gathering saw events in Tahrir Square as but a reflection of what analysts here spoke of as an underlying “virus”—the potentially destabilizing yearning for greater freedom in the Arab world, respect for human rights, and tolerance of dissenting views and ethnicities. Only at a gathering of proudly hard-nosed defense experts would such political goals be likened to a dreaded disease.
One of the less gloomy assessments involved Iran, the topic that had deeply depressed and divided last year’s gathering. Recent American and Israeli intelligence assessments were suggesting that a combination of tougher sanctions and covert action—the assassination of Iranian scientists; the sabotaging of sophisticated parts and equipment; and Stuxnet, the “virus” that most Herzliya participants seemed to love and for which they privately claimed some pride of ownership—had delayed Iran’s nuclear weapons ambition by two to four years. Dov Zakheim, a former American under-secretary of Defense, told the Jerusalem Post and conference participants that Israel did not have to attack Iran to stop its nuclear program. Thanks to its deployment of the Arrow 2 ballistic missile defense system, which relies on U.S. Navy Aegis missile defense ships in the Mediterranean, he said, there was now “less than a one percent chance that an Iranian missile would get through these defenses.”
The newly bolstered confidence, however, did not prompt Israelis to stop blaming the Obama Administration for having “wasted” a year, as one Israeli defense analyst put it, by trying to engage and coax Tehran into suspending or stopping its enrichment program and other activities consistent with weapons-making efforts.
The experts also continued blasting the Obama Administration for pressuring Israel to return to the peace table by insisting that Netanyahu freeze all settlement expansion activity, a demand that had forced the Palestinian Authority to adopt the same position.
While several Israelis seemed, if not content, at least willing to tolerate the lack of progress toward renewing peace talks with the Palestinians and Israel’s other foes—the status quo was the “worst alternative, except for all the others,” asserted Martin Kramer, of the Shalem Center—others warned that the perpetuation of the status quo was unacceptably dangerous for Israel. Those who blamed Israel for failure to make progress on the peace front would use the stalled process as yet another justification for delegitimizing Israel.
One indication of the sorry state of the on-again, mostly off-again, process was the no-show by Yasser Abed Rabbo, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the only senior Palestinian official who was scheduled to speak at the conference.
His was not the only empty chair, however. Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, who had recently quit the Labor Party to form a new center-Zionist faction called Independence in order to keep his thankless Defense post, flew to Washington to brief senior American officials on the Mubarak mess. Nor did Bibi Netanyahu attend—the first time in the conference’s 11-year history that an Israeli prime minister has not addressed the gathering. Israelis grumbled that Bibi felt that too many of the conference sponsors were hostile to him and his political agenda.
Senior officials who did attend were virtually unanimous in denouncing the Israeli government, arguing that Israel’s political system had become utterly dysfunctional. Weakness, selfishness, and greed jeopardized the state itself, warned Tzipi Livni, chairperson of the Kadima party, the former minister of foreign affairs, and the head of the not-so-loyal opposition.
Much of the conference gossip focused on Israel’s inability to take tough decisions given its corruption and increasingly bitter partisan divisions, a failure that has rarely been bandied about quite so openly.
At the session’s end, Uriel Reichman, the president of the IDC Herzliya, lamented the tragic deaths of three IDC graduates. Yossi Dahan had volunteered to serve in the paratroopers, where he was a first lieutenant. He helped support his family by working as a night watchman at a house in Kfar Shmaryahu. One night two motorcyclists drove by the house and sprayed it with bullets, killing Dahan. His killers were never caught. He was a victim of organized crime, Reichman charged, crime that had penetrated even high levels of government. He named no names; he didn’t have to.
The second victim, Roi Assaf, was on summer break in Sinai when he was killed by Muslim terrorists. He was 28 years old. He had done volunteer work in his hometown of Kfar Saba.
Nir Katz, 26, was a computer science major. He was killed in 2009 at the gay community center in Tel Aviv where he did volunteer work. His crime was being gay, Reichman said.
All three of these young men, Reichman said, embodied the spirit of Israel and had been killed for naught. Violence, he said, had become part of Israeli life. Israel needed not only a new system of government, one that was not paralyzed by religious and ideological divisions. It also needed a less violent, more moral and caring society.
It needed to rein in its own “fundamentalism,” he said, by refusing to permit groups who cared little for Israeli values to control the country’s education system and live off of tax-payer financial support. It needed citizens who would fight for their path and for a just state. It needed to recapture its vision.
February 8, 2011, 2:15 p.m.: So much angst, so little time. Here at the annual Herzliya conference, Israel’s premier international national security gathering, the gloom was so thick that it made me nostalgic for old-fashioned Southern California smog. In the second and third days of the conference, worry about Egypt gave way to anxiety about the rift with the Islamist government of Turkey, the growth of militant Islamist forces throughout the region, Israel’s growing vulnerability to cyber-attack, the global campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state, the increasing apathy of young Jews toward Israel, and above all, the threat posed by an increasingly assertive Islamic Iran, which will probably sooner or later go nuclear.
Herzliya is the Bataan death march of conferences. Roundtables start at 7:30 each morning and don’t end until after 9 p.m. Participants are given the luxury of 5-minute breaks between multiple, overlapping sessions. Lunch is less than an hour, and dinner is a rushed affair in a large tent at the exhausting day’s end. But this daunting schedule seems not to faze Israelis, for whom Herzliya is yet another opportunity to do what they love most: schmooze. The real news and gossip at this gathering is less likely to be exchanged in the formal meetings than in the corridors outside the meetings where Israelis huddle to drink endless cups of coffee, talk on their cell phones, and exchange news and views with friends and acquaintances.
Apart from the conference papers, there was plenty of news to digest. Late Monday afternoon, London’s Daily Telegraph published a Wikileaks cable reporting that Israel had long favored Egypt’s newly minted vice president Omar Suleiman to succeed President Hosni Mubarak. According to the U.S. State Department cable, written in 2008, David Hacham, an adviser to Israel’s military intelligence chief, told American diplomats in Tel Aviv that year that Suleiman, Egypt’s chief of intelligence, would be the most likely to serve as “at least an interim president if Mubarak dies or is incapacitated.”
“There is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect” of Suleiman, wrote diplomat Luis Moreno, who quoted Hacham as saying that he and Suleiman’s deputy spoke on a “hotline” at least several times a day. The cable added that an Israeli delegation headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak had been “shocked by Mubarak’s aged appearance and slurred speech” when it met with him in Egypt.
The leak of the cable at this delicate moment in Israeli-Egyptian relations is bound to embarrass both Israel and Suleiman, the official whom ailing president Mubarak has named to oversee Egypt’s political transition to an ostensibly more open, transparent system in the wake of mass protests.
“What we don’t need now is for Omar Suleiman to be seen by Egyptians and other Arabs as Israel’s poodle,” said one Israeli official at the gathering who asked not to be identified.
As Egypt’s intelligence chief, Suleiman handled two of the most sensitive portfolios for Mubarak—counter-terrorism efforts with Washington and relations with Israel. While Israelis were discussing Egypt’s political fate, Vice President Suleiman was continuing his meetings with opposition figures in Cairo, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that is hostile to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and the parent of Israel’s Palestinian foe, Hamas.
Meanwhile, some Israelis at Herzliya disputed the widespread perception that no one predicted the current unrest in Egypt. Several conference participants told me that Israeli analysts have been concerned for some time about relations with Cairo in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Last March, one Israeli said, a respected Israeli specialist met with an elite group of American intelligence officers and Middle Eastern specialists in Washington to discuss scenarios that would challenge U.S. interests and capabilities in the Middle East.
The Israeli had presented the following scenario: As Mubarak falls ill and protesters take to the streets by the thousands, Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, fails to win military support as his father’s successor. Intelligence chief Suleiman takes control. But taking advantage of the chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood uses the mass discontent and divisions within the ranks of Egypt’s opposition to come to power. The new government promptly distances itself from Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, moves troops in violation of the treaty into the Sinai Peninsula, works closely with militant Hamas in Gaza, and flirts with Iran. Israel feels it must respond.
The Americans were clearly unimpressed with the presentation, the Israeli analysts recalled, pronouncing the entire scenario “far-fetched.” Now that Act I has been played out before the television cameras in Cairo, Israel finds itself sitting uncomfortably close to the stage, hoping that the Americans were right after all.
February 7, 2011, 1:00 p.m.: The 11th annual Herzliya Conference, usually a buoyant assembly of Israel’s brightest and most ambitious national security minds, globe-trotting security experts, and glad-handing politicians, opened Sunday under a cloud of gloom. Many of the attendees were openly anxious about the crisis in Egypt, the first Arab state to have made peace with Israel more than 30 years ago. Israelis had come to take the peace with Egypt and all the benefits that it brings—from diplomatic support and military coordination against Hamas to neutralizing what had been the Arab world’s largest army—for granted.
Israelis have criticized Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for enforcing a cold peace and yearned to be not just accepted in the Arab Middle East, but embraced. Egypt’s seemingly eternal ruler had taught them they would have to live with less. Now, as newly minted Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former chief of Egyptian intelligence, opened meetings with some of the opposition factions and launched a transition to an uncertain future, Israelis whispered in the corridors of this prestigious conference that even their cold peace was now in jeopardy.
Israelis see the demonstrations against Mubarak not as an expression of a popular Egyptian yearning for freedom but through the lens of their own existential fears, and what they see frightens them, badly. They worry about the Muslim Brotherhood rising to power in free elections, and they are shaken by the speed with which the United States has abandoned a stalwart ally. Smadar Perry, a Yediot Ahranot Israeli journalist who has interviewed Mubarak many times, slammed the Obama Administration in an article Monday posted on “BitterLemons,” an English-language Israeli-Palestinian web site. Decrying the administration’s treatment of Mubarak as “crude and arrogant,” she likened the administration’s stance to that of “an elephant … sent to stomp on the Mubarak regime.” Perry was “shocked,” she wrote, by Obama’s abandonment of its ally. Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, were “presiding over an anti-Mubarak agenda” almost as harsh as that of Al Jazeera, she charged.
Even Israelis who do not admire Mubarak understand his vital contribution to their security. Will a new elected Egyptian leader continue to help Israel enforce its embargo against militant Hamas in Gaza, which vows never to accept a Jewish state on sacred Islamic soil? Will any representative Egyptian government be willing to help contain Iran by granting Israeli warships free passage through the Suez canal? Will Israelis now need to worry about infiltration from Hezbollah and Hamas in the Sinai Peninsula? Will the next Egyptian government help neutralize Iran’s nuclear program? What about continuing to deliver the gas that keeps the lights on in Tel Aviv and Haifa?
The subtext of the concerns was an even less often articulated question: How could Israel depend on a superpower that would so easily “throw such a stalwart ally to the wolves”? as one veteran intelligence officer who worked for many years in Washington put it.
Israel is not Egypt, one Israeli analyst here comforted himself and fellow analysts by saying at a session on “Scenarios and Strategic Implications,” which encouraged senior Israeli officials to speak by assuring their anonymity, which I will honor. There is a sea of difference between Israel and Egypt, several panelists insisted. Israel is not only a democracy, one veteran Israeli diplomat asserted, but a country with a huge base of support in the U.S. Congress and among the American people. Egypt had never enjoyed comparable popular support.
The flip side of Israel’s concern was fear that the United States is withdrawing from the Middle East and turning inward—that its role as Israel’s guarantor and status as sole remaining superpower is being abandoned—along with market share and economic prowess—to China.
Lawrence Summers, President Barack Obama’s former assistant for economics adviser, now back at Harvard, assured the group that this was not the case. The Unites States is recovering economically, he said. American confidence in itself is being restored. Microsoft is worth more than all of America’s car, steel, and aerospace production, by a factor of 1.5. Only in the United States and Israel, he said, complimenting his hosts, “could you raise $100 million before buying your first suit.”
Nor is America turning inward, he asserted. While Europe and many non-Middle Eastern states had an interest in the outcome of the power struggle under way in Egypt, “only Washington felt it had an obligation to respond.”
But such reassurances seemed to do little to allay the anxiety so evident at Herzliya. Will the Egypt virus spread, and to which of Israel’s other Arab allies? What about neighboring Jordan, where demonstrators have also held large rallies to protest skyrocketing food, fuel, and housing prices? “We need to calm down and double check what is needed to shore up this moderate regime,” one participant suggested. Israel had already come to Jordan’s aid once before, during its 1970 civil war with the Palestine Liberation Organization. What if the moderate Hashemite ruler of Jordan were swept away by the current wave of protest engulfing the region? Would Egypt’s current plight embolden Iran?
Israelis have few illusions about the fragility of the autocracies surrounding them. “We have been sitting on a volcano since the end of the cold war,” said one veteran Israeli student of the Arab world.
At the end of the gloomy morning, one Israeli analyst wondered whether the crisis in Egypt might not ultimately play to Israel’s favor. Would Israel not emerge clearly now as the United States’ only reliable, dependable strategic “asset” in the otherwise volatile region?
“We are an island of stability in a sea of dictatorship,” Yael German, the mayor of Herzliya, told the gathering in an on-the-record plenary session.
President Shimon Peres, who looked two decades younger than his 87 years, also sounded upbeat, as usual, about Israel, and also Egypt. The Middle East is experiencing a genuine revolution, he said, “more spontaneous than organized,” from “the bottom up rather than the top down.” It was a revolution for “computers rather than flags.” Its proponents wear T-shirts and jeans, the “garb of equality,” and a manifestation of the “resentment of the gap between rich and poor.”
Peres’ sympathy for the pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Cairo and Tunis betrayed his Labor party roots, and not Israel’s modern version but the party of an earlier if not simpler time when Israelis of that persuasion called one another “comrade.”
Hosni Mubarak has done a lot for peace, said Peres, “but young Egyptians want democracy too.” They also want iPhones and the Internet. “You can lock the door,” he said. “But the Internet is a window.”
Modern technology has permitted young Egyptians and Arabs to know what was going on. A simple change of government would not solve Egypt’s problems, he warned. Thanks partly to technology, Israel has galloped ahead, alleviating the poverty that gripped much of the region. Though Israel was a “small country with only two lakes—“one dead and one dying”—its agricultural sector had the highest yield in the world. And 95 percent of Israel’s agricultural sector was high-tech. The region itself must follow Israel’s example and “free itself from poverty” for peace to prevail, he said.
Peres, occupying a ceremonial post that has nonetheless let one of the most talented, experienced politicians in the country continue to soldier on for the causes he has long embraced, also paid lip service to the need to negotiate a peace with the Palestinians that would result in “two states for two peoples.” Making peace, he said, was like crossing the Red Sea. Though difficult, he said, “the alternative is far more dangerous.”
His talk, however, highlighted the lack of priority on the peace process and the Palestinians. Patrick Clawson, a specialist on Iran from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was struck by the virtual absence of the peace process from the jam-packed Herzliya schedule and corridor talk. “Israelis seem to like things just as they are,” he said.
Last year, the Palestine Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas addressed the gathering. This year, there is but one panel scheduled on the long-stalled talks, and the most senior Palestinian planning to attend the gathering—indeed, one of the only Palestinian officials scheduled to attend—is Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Secretary General.
Imagining “Keeping Up With the Mubaraks,” a reality show of life in exile, as the Egyptian president’s 30-year rule comes to an end