So much angst, so little time. Here at the annual Herzliya conference, Israel’s premier international national security gathering, the gloom was so thick that it made me nostalgic for old-fashioned Southern California smog.
In the second and third days of the conference, worry about Egypt gave way to anxiety about the rift with the Islamist government of Turkey, the growth of militant Islamist forces throughout the region, Israel’s growing vulnerability to cyber-attack, the global campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state, the increasing apathy of young Jews towards Israel, and above all, the threat posed by an increasingly assertive Islamic Iran, which probably will go nuclear sooner or later.
Herzliya is the Bataan death march of conferences. Roundtables start at 7:30 each morning and don’t end until after 9 p.m. Participants are given the luxury of five-minute breaks between multiple, overlapping sessions. Lunch is less than an hour, and dinner is a rushed affair in a large tent at the exhausting day’s end.
But this daunting schedule seems not to faze Israelis, for whom Herzliya is yet another opportunity to do what they love most: schmooze. The real news and gossip at this gathering is less likely to be exchanged in the formal meetings than in the corridors outside the meetings where Israelis huddle to drink endless cups of coffee, talk on their cell phones, and exchange news and views with friends and acquaintances.
Apart from the conference papers, there was plenty of news to digest. Late Monday afternoon, London’s Daily Telegraph published a Wikileaks cable reporting that Israel had long favored Egypt’s newly minted Vice President Omar Suleiman to succeed President Hosni Mubarak. According to the U.S. State Department cable, written in 2008, David Hacham, an adviser to Israel’s military intelligence chief, told American diplomats in Tel Aviv that year that Suleiman, Egypt’s chief of intelligence, would be the most likely to serve as “at least an interim president if Mubarak dies or is incapacitated.”
“There is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of” Suleiman, wrote diplomat Luis Moreno, who quoted Hacham as saying that he and Suleiman’s deputy spoke on a “hotline” at least several times a day.
The cable added that an Israeli delegation headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak had been “shocked by Mubarak’s aged appearance and slurred speech” when it met with him in Egypt.
The leak of the cable at this delicate moment in Israeli-Egyptian relations is bound to embarrass both Israel and Suleiman, the official ailing President Mubarak has named to oversee Egypt’s political transition to an ostensibly more open, transparent system in the wake of mass protests.
“What we don’t need now is for Omar Suleiman to be seen by Egyptians and other Arabs as Israel’s poodle,” said one Israeli official at the gathering who asked not to be identified.
As Egypt’s intelligence chief, Suleiman handled two of the most sensitive portfolios for Mubarak — counter-terrorism efforts with Washington and relations with Israel.
While Israelis were discussing Egypt’s political fate, vice president Suleiman was continuing his meetings with opposition figures in Cairo, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that is hostile to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and the parent of Israel’s Palestinian foe, Hamas.
Meanwhile, some Israelis at Herzliya disputed the widespread perception that no one predicted the current unrest in Egypt. Several conference participants told me that Israeli analysts have been concerned for some time about relations with Cairo in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Last March, one Israeli said, a respected Israeli specialist met with an elite group of American intelligence officers and Middle Eastern specialists in Washington to discuss scenarios that would challenge U.S. interests and capabilities in the Middle East.
The Israeli had presented the following scenario: As Mubarak falls ill and protesters take to the streets by the thousands, Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, fails to win military support as his father’s successor. Intelligence chief Suleiman takes control.
But taking advantage of the chaos, the Muslim Brotherhood uses the mass discontent and divisions within in the ranks of Egypt’s opposition to come to power. The new government promptly distances itself from Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, moves troops in violation of the treaty into the Sinai Peninsula, works closely with militant Hamas in Gaza, and flirts with Iran. Israel feels it must respond.
The Americans were clearly unimpressed with the presentation, the Israeli analysts recalled, pronouncing the entire scenario “far-fetched.” Now that Act I has been played out before the television cameras in Cairo, Israel finds itself sitting uncomfortably close to the stage, hoping that the Americans were right after all.
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