The dictators have fallen one by one. Several more look likely to fall soon, and few will miss them. But as popular revolutions approach their demise, something else has come along. In one country after another, the Muslim Brotherhood — the fundamentalist revolutionary Islamic party founded in 1920s Egypt — and other Islamist parties have used the ballot box for their own ends. After decades of repression and opposition, they have finally come to power. The era of the Islamists has begun, and as recent events in the Middle East have demonstrated, the world they create will not only look very different but be far more dangerous for Israel and beyond.
When Israel last entered Gaza, in Operation Cast Lead three years ago, the Arab World was stuck in the stasis it had been in for a century. Since their last defeat against Israel in 1973, the dictators had stuck to their old borders. Unpleasant, certainly, but not eager for conflict or any other variety of change. Their stance may have included populist denunciations of Israel, but they rarely took any genuine interest in the subject, any more than they took any interest in the welfare of their own people.
But Israel’s new neighbours are more than racketeers: they are ideologues. Last week, as it responded to the latest escalation in rocket fire from Gaza, Israel hit back in a changed world. And it is a world which more countries than Israel have cause to worry over.
The new Muslim Brotherhood (Ennahda party-led) government in Tunisia made one of its first acts in power an invitation and welcome to the leaders of Hamas who seized power in Gaza five years ago. Their reaction to the latest outbreak of hostilities was consequently predictable. Tunis condemned Israel. President Moncef Marzouki lambasted an alleged ‘international silence’ over Israel’s ‘barbaric raids’ and, while speaking with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, expressed ‘Tunisia’s solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people’. The Ennahda party itself demanded that ‘normalised relations’ with Israel should be outlawed under the Tunisian constitution.
Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, headed a delegation of solidarity to Gaza where he called on the Arab League to act and declared, ‘This blatant Israeli aggression on our people in Gaza must stop.’ Such developments from a relatively minor player in the region might be problematic, but they are nothing compared to the game-changers close by.
Like Tunisia, the overthrow of Egypt’s dictator did not lead to the election of secular democrats, but the electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even before the Tunisian government delegation arrived, Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil made a show of solidarity in Gaza, staging a photo opportunity with Haniyeh. This included a dead baby being brought to the two leaders to hold and kiss in front of a phalanx of cameras.
Having volunteered to broker a ceasefire in the days since, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi — seeking international legitimacy — was subsequently commended and his own regional standing improved. If there are those who are confused by this tactic, they should not be. It is one the Brotherhood have long played.
For unlike many extremist parties, the Brotherhood know — and privately admit — how careful they must be not to run straight for their final aim, thus scaring the regional and international horses. In many important ways, the Arab Spring has weakened the new states — but only for now. President Morsi also knows that the Egyptian army will be defeated in any open war with Israel as surely as they were in 1967 and 1973. The Egyptian army is in no fit state for conflict, while Syria — usually to be relied upon as a redoubtable enemy of Israel — is immersed in civil war.
So for Israel’s enemies around the region, it makes no sense to square up now. Israel reinforced this point by mobilising 75,000 troops earlier this week — it would need about 750 for a ground force invasion of Gaza. But Israel wants to send a message: to the Arab Spring states and to Iran. Its military is ready even if those of its enemies are not. However many well-wishers Hamas may have, this is clearly not the time to strike. Even the Muslim Brotherhood leadership will realise it is far better to bide their time, establish credibility at home and abroad and resist the calls of those hottest-headed of the Brothers who are calling for an immediate annihilationist war against Israel. If you have waited a century for power, you can wait a little while longer to achieve your aim.
But Israel is also looking to the longer term, and seeing how the region is following the same trajectory. There has been no Arab Spring in Turkey, but it too is changing. Until recently this was the country which could be held up as a demonstration of how political progress and Islamist politics might successfully be separated. Yet since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2003, relations have been hurtling backwards. From enjoying political and even security co-operation with Israel, Turkey went to locking up journalists and any other critics who stood against its Islamist trajectory.
As one of the first Islamists to be appointed through the ballot-box, Erdogan views democracy in the same light as the Brotherhood. By his own famous admission, democracy is like a bus or tram, ‘You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.’ Over time, Erdogan’s branch of Islamist politics allowed free movement of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey and a warming of relations — including meetings — with Hamas.
After a long period of deterioration, relations with Israel reached a low in 2010 when, in a deliberate act of provocation, a flotilla sailed to Gaza from Turkey in an effort to break the blockade Israel imposed to prevent weapon-running to Hamas. -Israeli forces boarded one of the vessels and, in the ensuing fight, nine Turkish activists were killed. If the Israelis thought that was the nadir of their new relations with Turkey, they were mistaken.
During recent hostilities, Erdogan carefully and deliberately described Israel as a ‘terrorist state’, claiming in addition that Israel had carried out a ‘massacre of children’ in Gaza. The following day the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, took his turn to travel in solidarity to Gaza, joined by other foreign ministers of the Arab League. Just two months ago Erdogan described in a speech how Turkey’s democracy was an ‘example’ for the Islamic world. His words, seemingly self-aggrandising at the time, now appear to be true. It may nearly be time to step off the bus.
The region is moving so decisively in the direction of the Brotherhood that even those not yet affected by the Arab revolutions are sensing the wind and making their jump. Since the violence in Syria broke out, the official leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, has had to leave his sanctuary in that country and has made his new base in Qatar. Last month the Emir of Qatar made an historic visit to Gaza and the Gulf state has now volunteered $400 million to Hamas.
It is obvious why this matters to Israel. The country is surrounded. All its efforts at normalisation in the region have come to nothing. To the north, Lebanon remains dominated by Iran’s proxies of Hezbollah. Egypt and Gaza are under the control of the Brotherhood. Syria is a redoubtable enemy and ally of Iran. But when the opposition have toppled Assad, they will be just as hostile and almost certainly head in the same Islamist direction. In recent days even the majority Palestinian Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has begun to look vulnerable. The situation is now so unstable that the King has had to cancel his visit to Britain after thousands have come out on to the Jordanian streets demanding his downfall.
There are those who believe that all this instability benefits Israel. But this could only be the case were it not now stabilising in the worst possible direction.
Since 1973 Israel has suffered a status quo of quiet enemies and quieter friends. Now it is surrounded by disappearing friends and ever louder enemies. Of course, there are those who portray this shift as the fault of Israel. Doubtless there are many things that Israel — like any country — could have done better. But to think this factor is the cause is to miss the over-arching movement that has been overlooked for too much of the century since its birth.
Unlike its neighbours, Israel is not spoilt for options. The country occupies a tiny piece of land — far less than was promised to it a century ago. Since the moment of its creation in 1948, all of its neighbours have repeatedly tried to invade and eradicate it. Since the failure of the last attempt in 1973, they have realised that they cannot destroy the country by conventional military force. Some, notably Egypt, subsequently sought and gained peace agreements.
But led by the Islamists in Iran and their proxies, over recent years Israel’s enemies have chosen the tactic of terrorism rather than invasion to achieve their ends. On occasion, as in Lebanon in 1982, Israel has responded by strategically occupying land to prevent such attacks. Each time it has given up such land — as in Gaza in 2005 — its withdrawal has been met with terror, not peace. Over recent years more than 12,000 rockets have been fired on Israel from Gaza.
In the background of all this is an Iranian regime which has as its repeatedly stated aim the eradication of the world’s only Jewish state. Among those stories lost during last week’s fighting is the IAEA’s discovery of a massive increase in centrifuge building at Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Like the Mullahs, the Brotherhood and other Islamists have very clear aims, and a very clear drive. Their brands of revolutionary politics are noticeable for two things in particular: fundamentalism and patience. While many groups — al-Qa’eda for instance — possess one of these traits, until now, few possessed both.
The overthrow of the dictators is recognised as one of the great stories of our time. And so it is. But the rise to power and consolidation of the Islamists is that story’s overlooked sequel. Today the complexities of the region look in danger of clarifying. Obviously this development matters very much to Israel. But anyone who thinks these forces are only a problem for Israel should reflect on the fact that — by their own unanimous admission — the Islamists only intend to be a problem for Israel first.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012