January 2011 Israel and Middle East Review
By David Dolan
POLITICAL TREMORS SHAKE THE REGION
Government instability rocked portions of the Middle East and North Africa during January, especially in Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria and Israel. Popular discontent with the governments of Jordan and Egypt was also said to be growing. More terror assaults upon local Christians marred life in Egypt and Iraq, while Christians came under government harassment in parts of neighboring Iran. Closer to home, a fresh spate of Palestinian rocket attacks prompted return IDF fire upon militant Islamic targets in the Gaza Strip. An Israeli soldier was killed during the exchanges.
The pro-Western Lebanese government collapsed the first half of January after the radical Iranian-backed Hizbullah movement pulled its cabinet ministers out of the ruling coalition. The dramatic move came just hours after the current Lebanese Prime Minister held emergency consultations at the White House in Washington with American President Barack Obama. The embattled Lebanese leader later went on to hold crisis talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris and Turkish officials in Ankara. Not by coincidence, the Lebanese government collapse also occurred just days before the first indictments were issued by a UN tribunal set up to investigate the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
The Israeli coalition headed by Binyamin Netanyahu was also shaken up in mid January when Defense Minister Ehud Barak and several cabinet colleagues resigned from the government and quit the Labor party. The Israeli Premier quickly shored up his government by inducting Barak and his new, smaller “Independence” party into the ruling coalition. Analysts said the long-simmering Labor party split might actually end up strengthening the Likud-led coalition even if it leaves Netanyahu with fewer backers in the Knesset.
Unrest gripped the Arab country of Tunisia during the month, forcing the country’s long-ruling leader out of office. Rioting took place earlier in neighboring Algeria, with activists protesting rising food prices. Along with the instability gripping Beirut, the situation in the North African countries was being closely monitored by other autocratic governments throughout the Arab Middle East and the wider Muslim world, with current leaders fearing similar street clashes may affect their governments, especially the repressive Syrian regime and the pro-Western Hashemite government in Jordan.
An Israeli security official issued a controversial assessment during January as to how close Iran might be to constructing nuclear warheads. This came amid news reports linking both the United States and Israel to a destructive computer bug which has hampered Iran’s threatening uranium enrichment program.
ISRAEL MONITORS CRISIS IN LEBANON
Israeli political and military leaders have been closely following the deteriorating political situation in neighboring Lebanon after the pro-Western government led by Saad Hariri, son of the slain former prime minister, collapsed on January 12. Just hours after Hariri met with President Obama in Washington, Energy Minister Gebran Bassil told a packed press conference in Beirut that he and eleven other cabinet colleagues had resigned from the Hariri government. Bassil is a member the “Christian Free Patriotic Movement,” a small political party led by veteran Lebanese politician Michel Aoun. The party is allied with Syria and the Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah movement. Two hand grenades exploded outside the party’s office headquarters in Beirut on January 13. Supported by a majority of Lebanon’s mushrooming Shiite community, Hizbullah held 10 of Lebanon’s 30 cabinet seats in the Hariri government. Another cabinet minister, Adnan Sayyed Hussein, also resigned, which was just enough to surpass the number of resignations needed to bring down the crisis-ridden government.
Hizbullah officials said their movement had withdrawn from the coalition cabinet because Saad Hariri was “unfit” to serve as Prime Minister. However Hizbullah’s notorious clerical leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, later admitted that he had pulled his 10 ministers out of the patchwork government coalition because of the pending United Nations tribunal indictments that he acknowledged would point the finger at Hizbullah operatives for murdering PM Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day in 2005. In a televised speech the day after his cabinet ministers exited the government, Nasrallah again charged that the UN commission was out “to harm the resistance,” which is his term for the Iranian-Syrian axis working with Hizbullah to turn Lebanon into a Shiite-dominated puppet state.
The UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, or UNSTL, formally issued its first indictments on January 17. Although no names were released to the public, it was widely believed they included several Hizbullah hit men identified in the Lebanese media as taking part in the murderous 2005 atrocity. UN officials indicated that the details of the indictments will probably not be released for several more weeks as UN officials in New York and Geneva and Lebanese authorities study the evidence to determine if it is enough to prosecute those named by the tribunal.
The French news agency AFP reported that the special UN commission uncovered substantial evidence that Iran’s supreme clerical leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally ordered the Hariri assassination. Israeli analysts say if the report is correct, it will undoubtedly increase tensions, if not provoke armed clashes, between pro and anti-Iranian forces struggling for political and military control over Lebanon.
Hizbullah’s satellite television station, Al-Manar, broadcast a blistering report on the evening of the 17th claiming that the Obama administration had ordered the UN tribunal to blame Hizbullah for the assassination despite supposed evidence that Israel was actually behind the operation. Israeli officials have long pointed out that it was completely against their country’s interests to murder the elder Hariri. The slain politician was well known as a moderate Sunni Arab businessman with strong links to Saudi Arabia, France and the United States, and not hostile toward the Jewish State, unlike Hizbullah and its nefarious backers.
KEEPING CLOSE WATCH
Trying to prevent street unrest if not renewed civil war in his divided country, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman quickly asked Saad Hariri, as well as other members of his moderate political party, to remain in their cabinet positions for the time being. He called for the formation of a “transitional government” that would rule in Beirut until either new national elections are held, or a new coalition is somehow stitched together to carry on governing until Hariri’s term officially ends in 2013. Analysts said the prospects for a sustainable coalition emerging before a national ballot is held are not very good, given that Hizbullah and its allies are strong enough to block support for any new Hariri government in the current Lebanese parliament.
Media reports said that soon after news reached Washington of the fresh Lebanese political turmoil, President Obama ordered American military forces in the eastern Mediterranean area to be prepare for possible action. Reports said the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier and its support strike group were under instructions to deploy in waters off of the Lebanese coast. Pentagon spokesman David Lapan told reporters that vigilance was called for since “political tension, unrest and especially any violence that might follow are threats to regional stability and security."
American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed sharp concern over the deteriorating political situation in Beirut, stating that the US government is “deeply worried about the efforts to destabilize Lebanon.” Analysts said the senior US diplomat was apparently alluding to the not-so-hidden negative role that both the Iranian and Syrian regimes have been playing in the unfolding Lebanese drama.
In the north of Israel, IDF troops were placed on heightened alert in order to counter any possible military recriminations from the Lebanese government collapse—which some were calling the possible first stage of a Hizbullah militia coup engineered in Tehran and Damascus. Lebanese media reports said Israeli air force jets flew low over several south Lebanese towns, including the Shiite center of Nabitiyah and Baalbeck in the Hizbullah-controlled Bekaa Valley. Yaakov Amidor, a retired IDF army general, told Israel’s Army Radio that “things are liable to slip out of the hands of the decision makers” in Beirut. He added that the situation in Lebanon is both “volatile and delicate,” noting ominously that “everyone there has a lot of weapons, a lot of resentment, a lot of frustration—you never know where it could lead.” Fears increased further after Hizbullah staged a mock takeover of Beirut the morning of January 18, sending unarmed militiamen to twelve strategic locations. The pre-announced action caused most parents to keep their children home from school.
Adding to concerns in Israel that Lebanon might fall completely under the grip of Hizbullah and its foreign paymasters, the IDF Home Front Command warned that if the Shiite militia launched missiles at Tel Aviv in an attempt to divert attention from the growing sectarian crisis in the country, residents of Israel’s main urban center would have a mere 90 seconds warning notice in order to take shelter. Defense Minister Barak stated last year that any such attack on civilian population areas would be met by a fierce IDF response which would target Lebanese government and army positions, not just Hizbullah outposts. However analysts said this full retaliation policy might not now be adhered to since Hizbullah politicians are no longer part of Lebanon’s ruling coalition.
LABOR PARTY SPLITS IN TWO
No Israeli political analyst could have foretold a few decades ago that the once mighty Labor party, which ruled Israel uninterruptedly from 1948 until 1977, would eventually slip into obscurity. However that is exactly the fate that has befallen the socialist party founded by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. The once mighty party is now down to a mere eight members in the 120 seat Knesset. That unprecedented low was reached on January 17 when party leader Ehud Barak broke away with four other Labor Knesset members to form a new party called Atzma’ut, Hebrew for “Independence.” Barak immediately resigned from the Netanyahu government, along with Industry and Trade Minister Binyamin Ben- Eliezer, Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog, and Minority Affairs Minister Avishai Braverman.
Saying that the Labor party had drifted too far to the left, the former premier and armed forces chief of staff declared that his new party would be “centrist, Zionist and democratic.” Barak implied that some of his former party colleagues had joined the radical left, which he said had adopted what he termed “post-Zionist” leanings. Isaac Herzog, the son of former Israeli President Chaim Herzog who once served as chief rabbi of Ireland, told reporters that, with the party deeply split between members who wanted to remain in the right-leaning Netanyahu coalition government and those who wished to bolt it, the formation of the new party was “a painful but necessary move.”
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who heads Kadima, the largest party in the current Knesset, demanded that new national elections be held as quickly as possible. However analysts said such an expensive move became unnecessary when Ehud Barak signed a new coalition agreement with Binyamin Netanyahu just one day after his resignation. The veteran politician will retain his post as Defense Minister, while another member of his new party, former armed forces chief Matan Vilna'i, was appointed Minister of Homeland Security.
Many speculated that the mutual coalition accord was actually hammered out between the two top officials before Barak made his dramatic announcement. Netanyahu’s office later admitted that the Premier knew of Barak’s resignation plans in advance. The agreement between Barak and Netanyahu brought five Knesset seats back to Netanyahu’s coalition quilt, meaning the Likud leader retains a comfortable majority of Israeli legislators who formally support his government.
TROUBLE WEST AND EAST
Nearly100,000 Jews immigrated to Israel during the early years of the state from the Arab country of Tunisia. Along with the entire Arab world, they and their offspring were closely following the dramatic ouster in mid-January of one of the longest serving Arab rulers, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He was forced out of office after 23 years when anti-government protest riots spread in Tunis and other parts of the small North African country. Many of the protestors told reporters they were angry over the lack of democracy in Tunisia, and also by rising food and fuel prices that have left many Tunisians destitute. Similar protest demonstrations later spread to Egypt, Oman, Libya and Yemen.
The unrest actually began in neighboring Algeria, a much larger Arab country with serious economic woes. Regional Arab satellite networks carried extensive coverage of the spreading protests, interviewing many Tunisians who openly expressed disdain for their autocratic leader, coupled with desires to see political and economic reforms quickly instituted. Many demanded more openness and expanded personal freedoms.
Israeli media reports said several other Arab governments suffering economic woes were nervously watching the situation in Tunisia—afraid that popular protests might spread to their own streets and possibly endanger their rule. Israeli officials were said to be especially concerned that Hamas agents operating in Jordan might try to spark off street violence in that neighboring Arab country. Worries increased after the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood movement, which works as a front for Hamas, issued a public demand for King Abdullah to immediately fire his cabinet and prepare for new elections that would include candidates linked to the movement. A similar call was made in Egypt.
Several Arab Christian leaders living in Israel and Palestinian Authority zones of control expressed growing concerns during January that escalating Muslim extremist violence against Christians living in Iraq and Egypt might ultimately reach the local Christian community. A deadly attack on a Roman Catholic Church service in Baghdad late last year prompted many Iraqi Christians to flee the country, with some heading to Jordan but most crossing over into Turkey, where the UN and several aid agencies have set up centers to assist them. The exodus was reinforced when small explosive packages were left on the doorsteps of several Iraqi Christians over the Christmas holidays. Al Qaida in Iraq took responsibility for the violent Baghdad attack and vowed to launch other assaults against Christians living in Iraq and other Muslim-dominated Middle East countries.
Next door in Iran, dozens of Christians connected to the burgeoning “house church” movement, including many pastors, have been arrested in an operation that began after Christmas. Most of the detained Christians have been charged with violating Iranian law by trying to convert Muslims to their faith, with some also accused of spying for foreign countries.
Israeli officials were shocked and saddened when a group of Egyptian attorneys charged that a devastating New Year’s Eve assault in Alexandria was carried out by Israeli Mossad agents. The vicious bomb attack left 21 Coptic Christians dead and nearly 80 others wounded. The lawyers made the totally unsubstantiated allegation during a meeting with families of the slain Egyptians. The explosion sparked off violent confrontations between Christians and Muslims all over Egypt, which left many injured and lasted for several days. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hinted that Al Qaida was also behind the Alexandria incident, vowing to “cut off the hands of terrorists and those plotting against Egypt's security.” Officials later said the assault was carried out by local and foreign Muslim extremists who were influenced by Al Qaida’s terrorist actions and hostile rhetoric. Around 10% of Egypt’s nearly 80 million citizens are Coptic Christians, the largest single Christian community in the turbulent region.
Anti-Israel sentiments by many Arabs were also apparently displayed when visitors to the CNN website in Arabic voted overwhelmingly to name Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as "Man of the Year" for 2010. He received nearly three quarters of the vote, with most of the rest choosing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad as their most admired regional leader. Erdogan’s popularity in the Arab world soared after the clash at sea last May between Israeli military personnel and mostly Turkish Muslims attempting to break an IDF naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. A blue ribbon commission appointed by the Israeli government to investigate the clash released a report in late January exonerating IDF forces who took part in the operation.
MORE ROCKETS FROM GAZA
The new year began with fresh clashes between Israelis and Palestinians. A violent protest demonstration was held early in the month next to the Israeli security barrier near the Palestinian town of Bil’in. An Arab woman died after inhaling tear gas fired by IDF forces at the protestors, who were hurdling stones and bottles at them. A young
Palestinian man was later shot dead after he disobeyed orders to halt at an IDF checkpoint in the Jordan Valley. Two other Arabs who worked for the British Consulate in eastern Jerusalem were arrested and charged with plotting an armed attack upon football spectators at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium. Officials said one of the men had traveled to Saudi Arabia to receive funds from Muslim Brotherhood agents to purchase lethal weapons, including shoulder-fired rockets. However plans to launch the attack were subsequently dropped after the two suspects realized it would be logistically impossible to carry out such an attack.
The worst violence during January was once again in the Gaza Strip. Saying it was marking the “second anniversary of the Palestinian victory” over IDF forces during the Cast Iron military operation, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group launched a series of mortar and rocket attacks at Israeli targets near the Gaza Strip. Three Israeli civilians were wounded in the assaults which lasted for several days. An Israeli soldier was killed when mortar shrapnel struck his unit. Military investigators later said that they suspected he was mistakenly hit by IDF mortar fire during intense clashes with Palestinians militiamen.
In response to the unprovoked Palestinian rocket and mortar barrage, Israeli military aircraft bombed several positions inside the Gaza Strip, including arms-smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt and Hamas and Islamic Jihad militia bases. After Israeli leaders warned that a new full-scale military operation might be launched if the Palestinian fire did not quickly end, Gaza Strip Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh instructed his security forces to enforce a ceasefire. However additional mortar shells landed in Israel later in the month and a Palestinian militant was killed as he attempted to infiltrate the border fence.
On January 19, Lebanon (of all countries) submitted a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement building in Judea and Samaria, and construction in parts of Jerusalem. Possessing veto power, the US has already announced opposition to the resolution, saying it will only further hamper efforts to get stalled peace talks moving again. This came as both Israeli and PA officials confirmed that the American-sponsored peace process has ground to a halt. PA leaders stated again in January they will not resume negotiations with the Netanyahu government until all settlement construction is halted.
Meanwhile Israeli leaders hinted during January that they have been involved in joint Western efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. This came after a French newspaper reported that Israel’s Mossad spy agency is working with the American CIA and Britain’s MI6 to sabotage the program. It said the three agencies cooperated to blow up an Iranian missile factory last October, and to infiltrate the Stuxnet virus into computers controlling Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges, causing up to 10% of them to be destroyed. The New York Times later reported that the Americans and Israelis had tested the powerful virus on similar computers operating in Israel. The virus, still active, has reportedly set back Iran’s nuclear development plans by many months, if not years.
Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who retired in January after eight years on the job, caused a stir when he told a Knesset committee that Iran may not be able to build nuclear bombs until 2015. Several Israeli experts on Iran and some politicians blasted his estimation, saying it could hurt efforts to halt the rogue regime’s nuclear program. The outgoing security chief replied to his critics by stating that Iran could well be closer than he predicted to either developing or acquiring nuclear warheads.
Amid fresh regional strife, the God of Israel has not forgotten His covenant people or His many promises to them. “For He is the living God who endures forever, and His kingdom is one which will never be destroyed, and His dominion will be forever (Daniel 6:26).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.