Israel watches Arab turmoil closely, but comments cautiously

Drawing inspiration from the revolt in Tunisia, thousands of Yemenis fed up with their president's 32-year rule demanded his ouster Saturday in a noisy demonstration that appeared to be the first large-scale public challenge to the strongman.
By Joel Greenberg
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 9:59 PM

JERUSALEM - Israel has been closely watching the unrest roiling its Arab neighbors while keeping a low profile, with top government officials responding cautiously to what one described as "an earthquake" in the region.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, refused to comment Thursday on the events unfolding on Israel's doorstep, which carry the potential of creating significant change along the nation's borders.

The anti-government protests in Egypt, Israel's largest Arab neighbor and the first to sign a peace treaty with it, are being watched with particular interest here, and so far the prevailing official assessment is that President Hosni Mubarak will weather the storm.

"We do believe that the regime is strong enough to overcome it by means of its security apparatus," one cabinet official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

"Mubarak is no Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali - there's a huge difference," the official added, referring to the deposed Tunisian president who fled an uprising in his country this month.

While the Tunisian leader appeared to have lost the confidence of his security elite, Mubarak's "regime is well rooted in the military and security apparatuses," the official said. "They will have to exercise force, power in the streets, and do it."

Egypt under Mubarak has played a key role in mediating Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, as well as facilitating indirect contacts with the militant Islamist group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, for the release of a captive Israeli soldier.

To Israel's north, Lebanon is also in midst of political turmoil, with the appointment of a new prime minister backed by the Islamist movement Hezbollah. Israeli officials say they are concerned but do not expect the latest changes to trigger violence across the Israeli-Lebanese frontier.

Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is a bitter enemy of Israel, and the two sides fought a war in 2006. But the group's rise to political dominance in Lebanon is not interpreted here as a harbinger of renewed hostilities.

"It's not going to affect directly - according to our assessment - our security situation," said Moshe Yaalon, a vice prime minister and minister of strategic affairs. "We don't see Hezbollah or other elements creating a provocation along the Israeli-Lebanese border. It's not likely to happen."

Yaalon, who spoke to foreign journalists Thursday, said Hezbollah remained deterred by the blows received during the 2006 war and did not want to be seen domestically as serving a foreign interest, such as Iran's, by instigating another round of fighting that would be devastating to Lebanon.

"Hezbollah, with its aspiration to govern Lebanon, needs popular support, so it can't provoke a provocation which might be criticized by the people of Lebanon," Yaalon said.

He added that Hezbollah, as a military arm of Iran held in reserve for a possible confrontation with the West or Israel, is restrained from squandering its arsenal of missiles in a conflict that would not directly serve Iran's interests.

To Israeli officials, the unrest across the region, with Israel on the sidelines, proves an assertion that has been a point of contention with the Obama administration.

"For us it is very clear," Yaalon said, "the core of this instability in the Middle East is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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