Israeli Diplomats Talk of Turmoil Roiling Expanse of the Mideast



As revolutionary fervor has swept the Arab world from Tunisia to Bahrain — and engulfed Libya in one of the bloodiest conflicts — the Jewish state has tred a delicate line between embracing democracy in theory and worrying about what Arab democracy might look like in practice.

"We're watching with awe on one hand, with caution on the other; but the jury is still out," said Dan Arbell, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Though relieved that Israel is not the issue as turmoil embroils the region, he said, the Jewish state plans to continue maintaining a low profile, monitoring the situation and encouraging its allies — including the United States and the European Union — to advise the Arab states undergoing change not to act too hastily.

Arbell was in Philadelphia last week to participate on a panel as part of a daylong program, "The Rapidly Changing Face of the Middle East and the Arab World," sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Daniel Kutner also represented the Israeli perspective on a separate panel. Both diplomats sat for a joint interview at the Union League of Greater Philadelphia, where the overall event was held.

"We're all for democracy. Israel cannot be opposed to democracy," said Arbell, who ranks just below Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States.

But given Israel's longstanding relationships with officials in the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, he said, "we did not embrace this wholeheartedly. We did not go out dancing in Tahrir Square."

Critics of Israel's muted response, he asserted, fail to take into account the precariousness of Israel's situation.

"For us, we are talking about Israeli lives. We are talking about a rough neighborhood," he said.

The program and interview came as Israel's months of relative quiet appeared to be ending. The killing of five members of a Jewish family on the West Bank, the explosion last week at Jerusalem's Central Bus Station and the renewal of rocket fire from Gaza have all pushed the Jewish state back into the headlines.

"Clearly, we see this as an attempt by Hamas to remind everyone, 'Hey, we are here, don't forget about us. We still have problems; we still have issues that need to be dealt with by the international community,' "Arbell said during the interview.

"We sense that there is discontent in the street in Gaza as to how Hamas is ruling them," he added, and see the attacks "as a way to deflect from that."

Israel's response, so far, has been limited and restrained, said Arbell. But if Hamas continues on its current path, Israel will be forced to respond with greater force — perhaps even a major offensive, he said.

Despite the perception that renewing Israeli-Palestinian talks has moved off the front-burner of American policy, Arbell said that American officials remain in constant contact with their Israeli and Palestinian counterparts on the issue, and still consider it a high priority.

The issue of U.S. and international military intervention in Libya — whether it's justified, prudent and just what the end goals should be — was one of the most talked-about topics of the World Affairs Council program.

Kutner and Arbell said that the conflict taking place within Libya between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and rebels is peripheral to Israel's security concerns. "We don't have a dog in this fight," Kutner said in the interview.

Israel is more concerned with the direction of post-Mubarak Egypt, where any change has the potential to affect Israel in a major way.

For example, Arbell pointed out in his public comments that a natural-gas pipe was sabotaged in the early days of the uprising against Mubarak.

Israel receives 40 percent of its natural-gas supply from Egypt, a supply that was cut off for the better part of six weeks, but has since resumed.

"This transition entails many obstacles," said Arbell. "Israelis are very concerned about the future of the peace treaty with Egypt."

He expressed concern that the democratic process in Egypt was moving too quickly, putting secular parties at a disadvantage against the far-better-organized Muslim Brotherhood.

The world should understand, he said, that "the Muslim Brotherhood, these are no Mother Teresas."


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