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ISRAEL: Officials keep a keen eye on Tunisia, also Lebanon

January 16, 2011 |  8:11 pm

Like the rest of the region, Israel is keeping a keen eye on developments in Tunisia even as it  waits to see what tomorrow (or the next day) brings in Lebanon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to convene an intelligence assessment meeting to study the situation, Israel Radio reported, but has already drawn one conclusion.

"The region in which we live is unstable ... we see this at several points throughout the Middle East," Netanyahu said at Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting. And the one clear lesson arising from the surrounding situation is that "we need to lay the foundations of security in any agreement we make," he said. Peace can unravel, regime and other changes can occur; therefore, the government's policy is to "bind peace and security together," Netanyahu said.

The peace and security chicken-and-egg conundrum presents a stumbling block that is more than just a procedural dispute of what gets discussed first. Security is the key to keeping the peace, Netanyahu said last week in his annual meeting with the foreign media.

"This may not be obvious to some of you, because you hear all the time a contrary statement that says 'well, what will keep the peace is the peace,'" said Netanyahu. The formal conclusion of peace doesn't guarantee the continuation of peace, but the security arrangements will "buttress" it and "protect us in case peace unravels ... or Iran tries to walk in," the prime minister said. 

Various regional upheavals, according to Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, negate the claim that all instability in the area stems from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The unrest evident in Tunisia, Lebanon and Sudan derives from strictly internal issues, the Tunisian-born Shalom told Israel Radio on Sunday, asserting that the claim that the conflict destabilized the region was "a legend, nothing more."

The Jewish Agency is offering assistance to Tunisia's Jewish community, centered mostly in Djerba. Members of the community told Israeli media that the situation is precarious and that like everyone else, they are fearful, but not necessarily because they are Jews.

Like other countries evacuating tourists and encouraging nationals to leave, Israel extricated a group of tourists from Tunisia over the weekend. The Foreign Ministry worked the necessary diplomatic channels to safeguard their security and see them out through a third country, bending the diplomats' strike for the emergency. On their return, the tourists said the situation was a bit hair-raising but that they witnessed a piece of Tunisian history.

Arab-Israeli lawmaker Ahmad Tibi congratulated Tunisians on the uprising and said it was a "victory of freedom over dictatorship, corruption, social injustice and inequality." Democratic values must prevail throughout the region, news websites quoted Tibi as saying.

Other connections were made Saturday night at a rally in Tel Aviv, when thousands protested what they called political persecution and a threat to democracy, following a move for a parliamentary inquiry commission to investigate funding of left-wing and human rights organizations. Mohammed Barakeh, a lawmaker belonging to Hadash, an Arab-Jewish political party, said those who care about democracy should raise their voices. "Anyone who wishes to know the power of the people can look to Tunisia," he said.

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem