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Israel: positive and negative ramifications

bitterlemons, November 03, 2011 Edition 32

The impact of the "Arab spring" on Israel has so far been mixed. Like other actors observing this series of events and being affected by it, Israel understands that this is just the beginning of a lengthy process whose repercussions for its interests will keep changing over time.

Israel's encounter with the Arab spring has occurred in the context of several other developments: its own drift to the political right, the crisis in the peace process, policy differences between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, and the exacerbation of the challenges facing Israel since the middle of the last decade. In what now looks like the golden era of the 1990s, Israel had an ongoing peace process with its Arab protagonists that was managed in intimate partnership with Washington, peace with two Arab neighbors, semi-normal relations with several other Arab states, a strong political and strategic alliance with Turkey and a great deal of international support. This veneer obscured but did not resolve either the lingering severe threats to Israel's national security or the frailty of the country's foreign policy achievements.

It is against the backdrop of the negative trends evident in the latter part of this century's first decade that Israel has been assessing the impact of the Arab spring's first year. On the negative side of the ledger, several consequences can be noted. The first is the threat to Israel's peace treaties and security cooperation with Egypt and Jordan. Since 1979 and 1994, respectively, these have been pillars of Israel's national security. In Jordan's case not much has happened, but the threat to the regime is there and King Abdullah strongly believes that the lingering Israeli-Palestinian impasse exacerbates the danger to his survival.

In Egypt's case, several changes have occurred. President Hosni Mubarak's relationship with Israel had its own problems, but at the end of the day he could be seen as a reliable partner both bilaterally and in regional terms. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that now holds ultimate power in the country is committed to maintaining the peace with Israel and to security cooperation in Sinai and with regard to shared threats from Gaza. But as the sacking of the Israeli embassy and other events demonstrated, it is loath to confront radical elements (particularly over Israel).

In the coming weeks and months as presidential and parliamentary elections take place, Israel may face an Egypt where power is shared between the military, a president, a parliament, a cabinet and the specter of the "street". Most of these elements are likely to be critical or possibly hostile toward Israel. While the peace treaty itself may very well survive, the relationship could deteriorate to a new low.

The trends affecting these two specific relationships are illustrative of a larger shift. Israel's successes in building new relationships with Arab partners since the early 1990s were accomplished with autocratic or authoritarian regimes. Islamists, intellectuals and the street were largely critical of these relationships and remained committed to the Palestinian cause, often in its radical version, and hostile to Israel. Even where power has not changed hands in the Middle East, these groups have been empowered and Israel's relationship with the Arab world has been adversely affected. Peace deals are going to be scrutinized and criticized and, in the event of future conflicts, public opinion and governments can be expected to respond more harshly.

Some of these trends have affected the Palestinians themselves. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza, each for its own good (and different) reasons, have invested efforts in preventing popular outbreaks. But the decision made by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to take the Palestinian issue to the United Nations and seek state recognition there was clearly affected by the need he felt to demonstrate that the Palestinians, too, were participants in the Arab spring.

The current Israeli government (and many Israelis) takes a dimmer view of the Arab spring than do governments and public opinion in much of the world. The latter have tended from the outset to adopt an enthusiastic, sometimes romantic view of fresh developments in Arab politics. Israelis, right-wingers more than others, tend to be dubious, cast doubt on the prospects for "real" democracy to take hold and are mindful of the immediate threats to Israel's interests and of the danger of Islamist and other radical takeover. This was very evident last May during Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, when he and President Barack Obama spoke about the repercussions of the Arab spring. For Israel's critics, this is yet another manifestation of the country's location "on the wrong side of history".

But not all is negative from Israel's perspective.

For one, the popular rebellion in Syria has weakened the Iranian camp in the Middle East. It is quite clear that both Hamas and Hizballah have been adversely affected by this turn of events.

Then too, Turkey's policy in the region has been affected by the events of the Arab spring, particularly in Syria. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has discovered that its original policy of "zero conflicts" is not tenable and has become divorced from the realities of the Middle East. Turkey's latent conflict with Iran has now come into the open, with Syria as the main arena and Iraq in all likelihood turning into another one.

This is not going to reverse Turkey's policy toward Israel. But it does open the way for new cooperation in areas and arenas of mutual interest. The same is true of other actors in the Middle East. Clearly, the coming years are going to be affected by uncertainty and a changing landscape.

Here, Israel and Israeli diplomacy could take advantage of new opportunities. But for this to happen, Israel must restart the peace process with the Palestinians. This may not be easy, but it is feasible if the current government is willing to introduce changes in both the substance and the style of its policies.

-Published 3/11/2011 © bitterlemons-international.org