It all started just five months ago, on Dec. 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian fruit peddler in Sidi Bouzidi, south of the Tunisian capital, set himself ablaze after the police seized his fruits, beat him up and refused to hear his complaints. The 26-year old Tunisian probably never expected that his tragic death was the proverbial match that would plunge the Middle East into a massive turmoil. The present situation in the Middle East and North Africa is perhaps the most volatile situation since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

Tunisia The unrest in this North African nation began in December, after the suicide of the 26-year-old fruit peddler. Anger at a lack of employment and at a leadership that was viewed as corrupt exploded into demonstrations and clashes with police. At least 219 were killed in protests during the following weeks. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was forced to step down and flee to Saudi Arabia after 23 years in power. In late February, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who served as prime minister for 11 years, bowed to protesters’ demands and also resigned. An interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, has called for elections in July to pick representatives to write a new constitution.

The uprising of the Tunisian people that resulted in the unexpected collapse of Ben Ali regime has sparked protests among almost all other nations in North Africa and the Middle East.

Algeria Following strikes and protests the government officially lifted a state of emergency that had been in effect for 19 years. But protest marches, which were not allowed under the state of emergency, continue to be banned in the capital, Algiers. Some viewed the move as a “ruse” to placate protesters, who continue to turn out for demonstrations that are quickly broken up by large numbers of police. For example, last month thousands of students marched in Algiers to demand the education minister step down, but they were blocked by police when trying to reach government headquarters. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has pledged political reforms – but so far nothing has happened.

Libya Protests challenging leader Moammar Gadhafi led to a bloody crackdown in February. Amid clashes between opposition forces and troops loyal to Gadhafi, thousands fled Libya, with many crossing borders into Egypt and Tunisia. Rebels quickly took control of much of eastern Libya, with their base in the city of Benghazi, where the anti-Gadhafi uprising began Feb. 15. After weeks of fighting, the regime had consolidated its power in much of the west and was advancing in the east when the U.N. SecurityCouncil approved the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya on March 17.

An international coalition soon began launching airstrikes and cruise missiles to take out Gadhafi’s air defenses and other military targets. Rebels have made gains since the international airstrikes began but, lacking in training and equipment, they have been pushed back several times when confronted by Gadhafi’s forces.

Little is known about the identity of the rebels. Are they really freedom fighters, as many want to believe, or are they radical Islamists, perhaps even al-Qaeda elements? Perhaps the current unrest in Lybia is merely be a replay of tribal rivalries which are an old story in Lybia – with Gaddafi’s own tribe, the Qadhadfa pitted against the Magariha tribe.

Morocco On Feb. 20, demonstrations were called by a coalition of youth groups, labor unions and human rights organizations demanding greater democracy in this North African kingdom. Several thousand people marched through the capital, Rabat – one of several cities across the country where protests were held. Five people were killed in violence linked to the demonstrations. On March 20, thousands again turned out around the country to press for reforms. King Mohammed VI has announced a plan to revise the country’s constitution and promised that the new constitution will be put to voters in a referendum.

Egypt In Egypt protesters took to the streets in January, demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak supporters clashed with demonstrators in Tahrir Square, which became the focal point of protests in the capital, Cairo. Hundreds were killed in the uprising. Although Mubarak pledged not to run again, fired his government and appointed a vice president for the first time in his thirty year rule, the protests intensified until Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that the president had been forced to resign and had handed over his powers to the army.

The military government has said that it will lift the country’s three-decades-old state of emergency before parliamentary elections scheduled for September. Presidential elections are slated to be held by November. Meanwhile, protesters have continued to demand that the military rulers carry out reforms. Soldiers stormed a protest April 9, killing two people and wounding more than a dozen. Mubarak was hospitalized on April 12, the day he was supposed to be summoned for questioning in a corruption probe.

Basically, Egypt’s rulers have not changed. The country today, like always, is still ruled by the strong and very much popular military.

The demonstrations that began in Tahrir Square in January with demands for the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak continue today with protests of the Egyptian military’s management of the revolution’s aftermath. Indeed, the interim Egyptian cabinet recently issued a decree criminalizing demonstrations, on the ground that they disrupt the economy, and two protesters in the square were killed last weekend by security forces.

From the start of the Egyptian revolution in January, Netanyahu has expressed skepticism that the uprising would transform Egypt into a democracy. He has worried that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel could be jeopardized. The euphoria of the early days, when the demonstrators concentrated on calls for democracy, definitely ended on the day when 2,000 Egyptians demonstrated outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, calling for an end to the peace treaty with Israel. The candidates to replace Mubarak have become more extreme in their expressions against Israel. The temporary regime is growing closer to Iran. It also wants to revise the natural gas contract with the Israel Electric Corporation.

Syria In this country mass protests have called for sweeping changes in Syria’s authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Invariably, these demonstrations have turned deadly, with the government and protesters both claiming heavy casualties.

After two months and many hundreds of deaths, Syria’s unrest is showing no sign of going away. If anything, it is spreading, and getting uglier by the day. What began in March as a minor incident involving schoolchildren daubing graffiti on walls in the southern city of Deraa has led to disturbances and deaths in virtually all parts of the country, including Damascus.

The current unrest in Syria is far more important than the unrest anywhere else in the Middle East. “Syria” was the 19th-century Ottoman-era term for a region that includes present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, western Iraq, and southern Turkey. At the end of World War I, Greater Syria was carved into a half-dozen states. The French mandate of “Syria” that came into existence contained many warring sect and a variety of regional and tribal interests. The Sunni Arabs, Shiite-trending Alawites, Druze, Kurds, Christian Arabs, Armenians, and Circassians have been able to escape their own internal contradictionsonly by their common hatred of Israel.

The fall of the Assad regime in Damascus would be a great blessing for the Middle East and the world. The list of Syria’s crimes is legion. As godfather and patron of Palestinian terrorism, Hafez the father and Bashar the son crafted a policy strategy that demonized Israel, consolidated the regional hegemony of Iran, and perpetuated an Alawite sectarian regime in defiance of the Sunni Muslim majority in the country. The Assads persecuted the Kurds, intimidated the Druze, and despoiled the tiny Jewish community.

Syria was responsible for a ruthless and bloodthirsty occupation of Lebanon in 1976 that only seemingly ended in 2005, as well as a series of Syrian assassinations of key Christian Lebanese personalities. Syria’s torture of Israeli POWs after the 1973 Yom Kippur War must never be forgotten.

When and if the Assad regime falls, the collapse of Iranian hegemony across the region may not be far behind. Losing its strategic hinterland and ideological benefactor, Hizbullah will also suffer a serious blow.


The same kind of entrenched interests that existed in Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, exist in the royal family of Bahrein where all the major government portfolios are in the hands of the royal family. Incidentally, the same is also true in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The prime minister of Bahrein is the king’s uncle and has been in office for decades.

A protest in the capital city, Manama, was met with a violent crackdown in which seven people were killed. Subsequently the crown prince called for a national dialogue between the Sunni-led government and the mostly Shiite protesters. Demonstrators were skeptical of the government’s offer and continued to stage daily marches, with many calling for the ouster of the monarchy. Following fighting between protesters and police, a military force from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf states entered Bahrain at the royal family’s request. A day later, the king declared a three-month state of emergency.

In the crackdown on dissent that followed, security forces cleared demonstrators from the Pearl traffic circle in Manama, imposed a curfew and arrested opposition activists. The government also demolished the monument in the middle of the Pearl roundabout that had become a symbol of the opposition. More than two dozen people have been killed since the protests began..

While the problematic relations between the Sunni-monarchy and the Shiite populations is one of the reasons for the current turmoil in Bahrain, no doubt Iran’s ambitions to play a more active role in the region – and the monarchy’s attempt to limit Iran’s influence is also involved in the current power struggle

Oman Protests began in the seaside town of Sohar in late February, resulting in deadly clashes with police. Groups of protesters around that country have since pressed for economic and political reforms. Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, has ordered 50,000 new jobs and a monthly stipend for the unemployed, and has reshuffled his Cabinet. On March 13, he granted lawmaking powers to officials outside the royal family. Protesters demanding the ouster of several ministers set up a tent camp at a government complex in the capital, Muscat, on March 22. Several protesters involved in a sit-in in Sohar have been detained. One person was killed during clashes with police on April 1.


Yemen first saw protests in January, with more sustained demonstrations beginning in February. Demonstrators are calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled for more than 30 years. The government intensified its crackdown in March, with police firing on demonstrators and government supporters clashing with crowds. More than 40 people were killed in clashes on March 18.

Saleh’s support has crumbled since then, with more than a dozen top military officials, as well as lawmakers, diplomats and governors joining the opposition, along with. Saleh has warned that the country could slide into civil war. On March 23, the Parliament put in place emergency laws that suspend the constitution and give security forces greater powers of arrest and detention. A mediation proposal from neighboring Gulf nations sparked demonstrations across the country on April 12 because it offered Saleh immunity from prosecution.

In Yemen various interest groups, with differing programs, contend with the weak central government. In the south a secessionist movement is strong; in the north a Shiite sect has a long-running with the central government, a conflict that often breaks out into open war. Radical Islamists are becoming increasingly visible. A radical cleric – once an ally of the president – Abdul Majid al-Zindani, has joined the protests and is calling for an Islamic caliphate.

Saudi Arabia Police opened fire to disperse a protest March 10 in the eastern city of Qatif. Three protesters and one officer were wounded. Hundreds had gathered to demand the release of political prisoners in a second day of protests in the east, home to the country’s Shiite minority. Several hundred again turned out in the east on March 11, but wider protests called for in the capital, Riyadh, failed to materialize amid a massive show of police force. Protests are officially banned in the mainly Sunni kingdom. King Abdullah has promised to spend billions of dollars on a benefits package that includes money for home loans, new apartments and payments to government workers, students and the unemployed.

Kuwait More than 1,000 protesters turned out in Kuwait City on March 8 to call for political changes – including a new prime minister. No violence was reported, but police had blocked off a central square and forced protesters into a parking lot across from a government building. On March 31, the country’s official news agency said the Cabinet had resigned over regional turmoil. The move appeared to be an attempt by three ministers to avoid being questioned about why Kuwait did not send troops to Bahrain as part of a Saudi-led force.

Jordan Protesters have been gathering on Fridays to demand more of a voice in government – some want the power to elect their prime minister and Cabinet officials. King Abdullah II fired his Cabinet in February and appointed a new prime minister tasked with carrying out reforms. On March 15, the king set a three-month deadline for agreement on reforms by a committee of government officials and opposition leaders. Hundreds of protesters set up camp in a main square in Amman on March 24, saying they would remain there until the prime minister left and other demands were met. The following day, government supporters clashed with the protesters in the capital. One person died and 120 were injured.

Iran Iran is the number-one strategic problem of all Middle East states, as well as of Israel, and maybe of the whole world. Yet the chances of the current turmoil spreading to Iran are not very high.

Nevertheless, on February 14 tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out for the biggest protests the country had seen since the aftermath of the disputed re-election of President Ahmadinejad in 2009. After clashes between security forces and the protesters, hard-line lawmakers called for opposition leaders to be put on trial and put to death. Two weeks later protesters rallied in Tehran to demand the release of opposition leaders who had been moved from house arrest to prison. Riot police used tear gas and batons to break up the demonstrations. So far the Iranian regime does not seem to have been weakened by these protests.

Yet Iran continues to be the most important and challenging issue that Israel will have to deal with in these winds of change.

Lebanon and Iraq Two Arab countries have so far not participated in this year’s turmoil ­– Lebanon and Iraq. The people in these countries not going to the street to demonstrate because they have already been there. The Lebanese went out to the street in 2005. The Iraqis, with help from the US, changed their country, but in the process they had a bloody civil war. They seem to have no desire now to demonstrate. But that may change. From Israel’s perspective, we need to remember that Iraq is only 210 miles from the Jordan River. Israel cannot rule out some day Iraq, under Iranian influence, may re-engage in the Arab-Israel conflict.

Summary of current turmoil

The Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil. Some regimes and rulers are gone. But almost all the problems of the region remain. Here are some points to consider:

1. Leaderless revolution. So far this has been a revolution without leaders. Who were the leaders of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square? And who is the leader of the people in Bahrain or in Yemen? Who leads the Libyan rebels? Nobody can say. We still have to wait for the emergence of charismatic figures to see to where this revolution is heading.

2. Causes. The causes for the current turmoil differ in each country. Calls for improving living standards were behind the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt; while in Bahrain, there were religious conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites. In Libya and Yemen, long-standing tribal rifts have added to the tumult. But the underlying reason for the present unrest in most countries, people are protesting because they are hungry. Food prices have been spiraling everywhere; buying their daily food is no longer an option for many. People who are hungry are not afraid to demand a change.

3. First chapter. What we have seen so far is only the first chapter of the story. No one can predict the plot of the second chapter, let alone the end of novel. Revolutions have the tendency to be hijacked in the second wave. Go back to the French Revolution of 1789, the communist revolution in Russia of 1917, or the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and see what happened – in the first wave there were very good people with very good intentions to change the regime and get rid of an oppressive king, czar, shah, whatever. They went to the street and succeed in removing the hated ruler. But then in the second wave-a year later, sometimes less, sometimes more-another oppressive regime takes over and at some point the people miss the previous ruler.

4. Instability. Turmoil is always accompanied by instability. The current anti-regime protests have tended to loosen the control of the central governments. This has created a vacuum which in many areas is being filled by regional terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

5. Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is a new understanding that Israel is not the core problem of the Middle East. The idea that if we just solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue the rest of the problems in the Middle East will disappear was a false idea. The core problems are poverty, oppression, dictatorship, and other related problems.

6. Radical Islam. Originally the Arab uprisings may have been nationalistic, but religion did not suddenly disappear. Initially working in the background, radical Islamists realize that this upheaval presents them with a unique opportunity to enter the political arena. Nevertheless, despite the strong presence of Islamist groups, liberal movements continue to wield influence on the streets and are trying to channel this influence into viable political parties.

7. The American angle. With the exception of Syria, all of the Arab states that are now in turmoil have tried to be American allies. Egypt was Washington’s best friend in the region. Tunisia’s leader was praised for his cooperation with anti-terror investigations, as was Yemen’s. Libya gave up its nuclear and chemical-weapons programs at Washington’s urging. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Whether this will continue remains to be seen. For the time being, Israel is America’s only steady ally in the region.

Pressures on Israel

These uprisings that have swept through the Middle East make it harder for Israel to reach a peace deal with Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently, “Any potential deal with the Palestinians has to account for the tremendous instability in the region.” At the very time when the entire Middle East is engulfed in flames, Israel is under mounting pressure to make a far-reaching offer to the Palestinians or face a United Nations vote welcoming the State of Palestine as a new member. The territory of this new state will include all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The Palestinian Authority has been steadily building support for such a UN resolution in September, a move that could place Israel into a diplomatic vise. Some say that if such a resolution is passed, it means that Israel is occupying land belonging to a fellow United Nations member – despite the fact that Israel has controlled and settled this land for more than four decades.

For example, Netanyahu has long insisted on the need of maintaining an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley. How can Israel be expected to sign agreements, predicated on it withdrawing from strategic territories, like the Jordan Valley, when it cannot be certain if the governments it negotiates with will be there in the future?

Both Washington and European Quartet are pressuring Israel to agree to a full withdrawal from the West Bank and to acquiesce to the loss of defensible borders. This poses unacceptable risks for the Jewish state and is also in contradiction to international commitments that were given to Israel in the past.

Abba Eban said it well: “We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz.” [Der Spiegel, November 5, 1969]

Why talk about 1967 without considering earlier agreements? At the peace conference between the Ottoman Empire and the four Principal Allied Powers of World War I – Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan, the San Remo Conference of April 1920, all signatories agreed to affirm the Balfour Declaration and create a Jewish national home in what is now the Land of Israel. The San Remo resolutions were confirmed by all 51 members of the League of Nations on July 24, 1922. Subsequently, the League of Nations, with the special concurrence of the U.S. (not a member), established the Palestine Mandate as a matter of binding international law, based on the “historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine”. The Palestine Mandate was intended to establish “a National Home for the Jewish people”, in all the territory of what later became Jordan and Israel. Article 6 explicitly called for “close settlement by Jews on the land” of Palestine.

In 1923, however, for her own imperial interests, Britain cut off 78% of the original Mandate territory to establish the Arab Emirate of Trans Jordan and installed as Emir, Abdullah, a World War I ally; his forces had been expelled from Arabia by the Wahabi Saudis. Abdullah, with some 2,000 Hashemite troops, took control of the territory in Palestine where Jews were no longer permitted to live. The territory for the Jewish national home in Palestine was thus reduced to a mere 22% of the original Mandate. In 1946, with British support, Abdullah converted the Emirate of Trans-Jordan into the Kingdom of Jordan with himself as King.

How real is this threat? We must remember that no state has ever been created by a UN General Assembly declaration. Israel was not created by the UN Partition Resolution 181 in November 1947, but by David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of Israeli independence on May 15, 1948, and by the IDF’s ability to take and control the areas of the new state.

A UN declaration, whether at the Security Council or the General Assembly, recognizing a Palestinian state within the so-called 1967 borders will be no more effective than Security Council Resolution 1701, which prohibited Hizbullah from military operations in southern Lebanon or than General Assembly Resolution 3379 which equated Zionism with racism.

Moreover, the current Palestinian effort at the UN, seems redundant since the UN General Assembly already recommended the creation of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines on December 15, 1988. This resolution was backed by 104 countries; only the U.S. and Israel opposed it. But this and other past resolutions (including one as recently as December 18, 2008) did not create a new legal reality, nor did they change anything on the ground.

What is wrong with 2-state solution

There have been numerous proposals for 2-state solution, ever since 1937, when Great Britain’s Peel Commission proposed a “Two-State Solution” as “a chance for ultimate peace”. This commission called for the subdivision of the Mandate into two states, one Arab, one Jewish as “a chance for ultimate peace”. The Arabs emphatically rejected this proposal, as they rejected all subsequent 2-state plans, whether advanced by the UN, an American president or secretary of state, or by Israel.

The fundamental problem seems to be that the Palestinians reject the rights of the Jewish people to have their own state. They remain steadfast in their refusal to accept that there even exists a Jewish nation that lays legitimate claim to its land. They reject the entire premise of a state for the Jewish people — not only beyond the pre-1967 lines of the state of Israel, but even within its original 1948 boundaries. Thus, a Hamas leader recently stated, “We say that Palestine from the sea to the river is fully the land of the Palestinians. We will cede none of it, and we will not recognize the so-called State of Israel.”

The chance for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority evaporated when Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement signed a reconciliation deal in Cairo with Hamas, its bitter rival. Mahmoud Zahar, a senior Hamas official, stated at the time: “Our program does not include negotiations with Israel or recognizing it. It will not be possible for the interim national government to participate or bet on or work on the peace process with Israel.”

What can/should Israel do to be ready for the September events?

Israel’s options are very limited due to the automatic anti-Israel majority in the UN General Assembly. More than 130 states have already indicated that they will vote for a resolution that recognizes Palestine a state.

Traditional diplomacy – Israel has already informed the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council, as well as several other prominent European Union countries, that if the Palestinian Authority persists in its efforts to gain recognition in September as a state within the 1967 borders, Israel would respond with a series of unilateral steps of its own. One of these steps might be the extension of Israel sovereignty to all of the West Bank.


1) The PA rejected Israel’s offer of peace and Palestinian statehood in 2000 and instead began to wage a terror war against Israel.
2) The PA responded to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 with a tenfold increase in the number of rockets and missiles it fired on Israeli civilian targets in the Negev.
3) ThePalestinian residents of Gaza gave their answer in 2006, when in democratic elections they chose Hamas to rule over them.
4) PA president Abbas rejected then-prime minister Ehud Olmert ’s offer of statehood and peace in2008.
5) The PA refused in 2010/2011 to resume peace negotiations with Netanyahu; instead Abbas beganpeace negotiations with Hamas and chose to work on international recognition of an independent state without peace with Israel.

Regretfully we must conclude that the Palestinians do noy want peace with Israel.


Let us be frank: two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is a bad idea. This is what Shimon Peres once said about it:

“If a separate Palestinian state is formed, it will be armed from top to bottom. It will be a base for the most extremist terror groups, who will have anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, endangering not only passersby but every airplane or helicopter that uses Israeli air space, every vehicle on Israel’s major coastal highways. It is doubtful whether territorial depth provides deterrence. But the absence of minimal territorial depth leaves a state without any deterrence. This option in itself makes attacking Israel on all fronts irresistibly tempting…demilitarization of the West Bank is a questionable antidote: the problem is not the agreement to demilitarize, but whether the agreement will be honored. The number of agreements broken by the Arabs is not less than the number they have kept.”( Shimon Peres.This Time Tomorrow, Jerusalem 1978. Page 255.)

Peres obviously no longer supports what he once believed in. He sees only good in the current turmoil, just as he sees only good in giving away all that is ours. Our view of the world and particularly our view of what is going on in the Middle East is quite different than his.

My experience tells me that turmoil and instability are rarely beneficial. In the present situation where we do not know form day to day, from hour to hour, who are our friends and who, our enemies. Therefore, we dare not take steps that may bring us to the brink of disaster. At this point, nobody really understands where the so-called Arab Spring is going. This is only the beginning. The results of events can go in one direction or another; the outcome in the long or even in the medium term is still unknown.

Back in January and February Arab dictators were falling like dominos; today bloody stalemates characterize the region. In Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya, the dictators are hanging on through the violent suppression of protest.This is not the time for Israel to give away anything.

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*Presented to ZOA Michigan Region on 17 May 2011