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With the Arab Spring shaking the Middle East’s status quo, a new regional order is being born. As the recent attacks in Eilat and Be’er Sheva show, Israel is likely to pay a price.

Lee Smith
August 24, 2011
An Israeli police officer inspects the bus that was attacked near Eilat.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
An Israeli police officer inspects the bus that was attacked near Eilat.(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

The relative quiet that Israel has enjoyed during the turmoil of the Arab Spring could not last for long. It came to an end last Thursday with the terror attacks close to Eilat, near the border with the Sinai, that killed eight Israelis and wounded dozens of others. Subsequently, a rocket fired from Gaza struck a home in Be’er Sheva, leaving another Israeli dead. In the aftermath of the Eilat attack, the first attack in Israel from the Egyptian border in four decades, Israeli forces pursuing terrorists in Egyptian uniforms mistakenly killed two real Egyptian police officers, raising tensions between Cairo and Jerusalem.

For six months, from North Africa and the Levant to the Persian Gulf, Arab masses toppled Arab regimes while Arab tribes and sects squared off against each other in internecine warfare. Now Israel, which has nothing to do with the intra-Arab conflict that instigated and shaped the events of the Arab Spring, has been dragged into a mess that shows no signs of ending soon.

If many Western analysts were a little too eager to overlook the anti-Israel—as well as anti-American—sentiment on display at Tahrir Square during the Egyptian uprising, their implicit interpretation was nonetheless accurate: Israel was not the central issue driving the protest movement that brought down Hosni Mubarak. The Arab Spring isn’t about Israel; it’s about the Arabs.

But the focus has returned to the Jewish state. The method employed is tawreet, an Arabic word that means embroiling. In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Brookings Institution scholar Michael Doran explained its strategic value: “You embroil someone by goading him to take actions against a third party that will result in political effects beneficial to you.” Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, for instance, was a master of embroilment, using various Palestinian factions to attack Israel in order to create conditions that were domestically and regionally advantageous for himself.

Right now, as Doran told me in a phone interview, “it is in the interest of many actors in the region to heighten tension with Israel.” Among these actors, there’s Hamas, the Iranian-sponsored outfit that rules Gaza and seems to have more control than Egyptian security does over the porous Gaza-Egyptian border. But the perpetrators of the recent terror attacks on Israel also enjoyed some level of assistance from elements of Egypt’s security and military establishment. Egyptian Islamist factions may also have an interest in stoking the flames with Israel in order to position themselves as champions of “resistance” in the post-Mubarak political era.

Some analysts have suggested that the carefully planned and coordinated operations may be the work of al-Qaida, whose newly anointed leader, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is eager to leave his mark in the country of his origins.

But none of these very reasonable explanations excludes the actor most interested in changing the subject away from Arab regimes: the non-Arab Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is the sponsor of Hamas and a sometime ally of al-Qaida that, as Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation of the Defense of Democracies said, “has been trying to secure the Sinai since Mubarak was in power.”

Iran’s strategic achievements during the Arab Spring have been mixed. After the fall of Mubarak, which fulfilled one of the Islamic Republic’s longtime goals, Tehran also suffered some notable setbacks. When Gulf Cooperation Council forces entered Bahrain, Iran was incapable of exercising any influence by offering at least token protection to the Shia community there, showing the limits of Iranian bluster even when it came to their co-religionists in a nearby country.

It’s still unclear how Iran will come out of the Arab Spring, or to what extent the Obama Administration is capable of making the Iranians pay for their strategic overreach in a region where Washington has exercised hegemony for more than half a century. As long as Tehran can keep the regional conversation focused on Israel and resistance to the Zionist entity, the Persian Shiites in power will be able to bridge the sectarian gap that divides them from the Middle East’s Sunni Arab majority. But when events like the Arab Spring push the Israelis to the margins of the picture and instead underline Iran’s role in regional upheaval and its sectarian identity, things look much less rosy for the Islamic Republic.

Right now, Iran is facing considerable sectarian pressure. Last week, four members of Iran’s ally Hezbollah were indicted in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister, and Sunni leader, Rafiq Hariri. While it is unlikely that Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah will turn over the suspects, the organization finds itself increasingly isolated. Much of Lebanon, if not the majority, has turned its back on Hezbollah. Its own Shia community dreads the prospect of another war with Israel. Most significantly, Hezbollah may be on the verge of losing its strategic depth and supply lines that stretch across the border into Syria.

The Assad regime’s troubles constitute a threat to Iran’s vital strategic interests in the region. Syria is the one Arab state allied with Tehran, a relationship that has flourished over the last three decades, most recently in Iraq, where they made war against the United States and its allies. Losing Assad would also jeopardize Iran’s 30-year investment in Hezbollah, which has already moved much of its weapons from Syria to Lebanon.

Even if the Syrian regime survives, it is going to have problems putting the lid back on the sectarian cauldron that Assad brought to a boil through his policy of violent repression. It’s bad enough that the Syrian Alawite minority regime was slaughtering Sunnis during the middle of Ramadan, but last week the Syrian navy opened fire on a Palestinian refugee camp, not an operation destined to win popularity points from the Sunni mainstream.

Iran needs to defend Syria, but its options are limited. When the Syrian regime tried to change the subject by sending Palestinian protesters to the Israeli border on the Golan Heights in May and June, the opposition didn’t bite—they understood that the pressing issue was not the Jewish state but the Assads and their allies. Nor can the Iranians afford to throw good money after bad by getting Hezbollah to stir up trouble in Lebanon, since it’s not at all clear that the organization would fare well in—or even survive—another conflict with Israel.

Sinai was therefore Iran’s last, best hope for embroiling the Israelis. “Because of the Assad regime’s outrages against Palestinians and Syrian Sunnis, Hamas would probably not take orders from Syria at this point,” Tony Badran said. “But it would from Iran. The upside for the Iranians is that they have now found a front that doesn’t jeopardize their main asset in Lebanon, all while advancing Iranian strategic interests in Sinai/Egypt.”

Egypt was formerly the cornerstone of Washington’s regional security architecture, a role that last week’s attacks show it is no longer capable of playing. Whether the violence on its Israeli border was a carefully calculated project to extort more money from the United States or simply the result of an incapacitated Egyptian state, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s request that Egypt bulk up border security will fall on deaf ears.

Syria played a similar part in Tehran’s revolutionary project for the region, and is now on the verge of falling. The Arab Spring has shaken the two pillars—Egypt and Syria—of the Arab status quo, and a new regional order is now being born. Israel is likely to continue to pay a price, no matter how hard its leaders work to avoid getting drawn in to an inter-Arab conflict whose direction is still unclear.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.