Sunday October 4, 2015
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Barney Breen-Portnoy

Silence is golden

Its the dog days of August here in Israel right now. The temperatures are sizzling and the domestic news cycle has ground to a near halt.

Yet despite the calm on the homefront, our neighborhood is on fire. The bloody civil war in Syria shows no signs of ending and Egypt appears to have entered a prolonged period of unrest. Meanwhile in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani is wooing the international community with smiles as his countrys uranium-enrichment centrifuges continue to spin.

If there is one thing Israelis like to do, its to talk. Israelis, including our political leaders, love to express their opinions on any matter, even ones that are none of their business. However, recently, an uncharacteristic silence has been emanating from Jerusalem regarding the dramatic upheavals taking place in our corner of the world. And for Israel these days, silence is golden.

On the situation in Egypt, for instance, Israel has nothing to gain by opening its mouth. Israels primary interest is maintaining the three-decade-old peace deal with its largest neighbor, whether its run by the Egyptian military or the Muslim Brotherhood (although Israel ultimately has a clear preference for the Egyptian military).

Israel has to work with whoever is in charge of Egypt, so there is no point in publicly antagonizing any of the conflicting groups in that country. And while Israel definitely has many more shared interests with the Egyptian military than with the Muslim Brotherhood, it also doesnt want to appear to be backing the killing of demonstrators in the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities. There is no good guy in the current showdown between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood. So while Israels quiet lobbying campaign with its friends in Washington to prevent the cutoff of U.S. aid to the Egyptian military makes sense strategically, Israel also shouldnt burn all its bridges with other groups in Egypt. The Egyptian military will rule the country for the foreseeable future, but who knows what the long-term holds in store?

In Syria, the need for continued Israeli silence is also paramount. But unlike in Egypt, its not clear which side is better for Israel, when push comes to shove. While the downfall of Bashar Assad (which doesnt look like itll happen anytime soon) would deal a perhaps fatal blow to the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, Israel also doesnt want to find itself facing an al-Qaida terror state on its northeastern border. The rebels in Syria are not Twitter-using secularist liberals seeking freedom from oppression. Many of them are hardened Islamic jihadists, who if they took power in Damascus, might end up making Israel miss the Assad era, particularly if they were to seize Assads vast caches of advanced weaponry. The relative quiet that has prevailed on the Golan Heights for the past four decades should not be taken for granted. The situation in Syria presents Israel with a classic which is the lesser of two evils? quandary, yet the correct answer is neither. Israel must act (or continue to act, according to foreign sources) to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from the Assad regime to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but it should also take into account that Assad could well overcome the revolt against him (especially if Russia maintains its steadfast support for him, which appears likely). All in all, an indefinite stalemate, in which neither Assad nor the rebels gain an upper hand, is probably the best scenario for Israel.

The world may seem to have forgotten about Irans nuclear program in recent months, but Israel certainly hasnt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has toned down his public pronouncements on Iran, but one can assume that he is maintaining behind-the-scenes pressure on the West to thwart Irans nuclear ambitions via tougher sanctions and, if all else fails, military action. The recent renewal of peace negotiations with the Palestinians bought Netanyahu some chips he can cash in with the West on Iran.

At this point, if it comes to military action, its probably the U.S. or nothing. If Israel was going to launch an independent strike on Irans nuclear facilities, it likely would have done so several years ago. But all options are still on the table and needless speculation on the issue by Israeli officials would serve no purpose at this time.

Silence is also beneficial regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The renewed negotiations opened in Washington at the end of last month with great fanfare, but since then, barely any information has been released about the progress of the talks. As long as both sides are satisfied with what is taking place behind closed doors, this silence will continue. Once one side wants to torpedo the negotiations, the leaks will start. At the end of the day, confidential talks are the only way an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal can be reached. If every little detail of the talks was made publicly known, Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would be forced to deal with constant internal political unrest that would constrain their flexibility at the negotiating table.

So if you notice its a slow news day in Israel, remember there is always more going on than meets the eye in the Middle East. It just may not be in Israels interest to comment.

The writer is an Israel Hayom English Edition editor.

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