Spectator's Journal

Jittery in Jerusalem

In Israel, well-founded worries over the "Arab Spring."

By From the October 2011 issue

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WHEN the "Arab Spring" unexpectedly broke out late last year, Natan Sharansky waxed optimistic. Writing in the Washington Post in March, the former Soviet refusenik who ranks as Israel's best known pro-democracy activist argued that the grassroots revolts that unseated Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali and Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak marked the start of a democratic tsunami that could soon engulf the region. Regional conditions, he counseled, were ripe for just this sort of radical surgery.

These days, however, Israelis who share this hopeful outlook are exceedingly hard to find. A recent visit found policymakers and academics of all political stripes deeply apprehensive of the tectonic shifts that have taken place in their region this year. They have good reason to be. Israel's security environment, never favorable, has taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

The problems begin on Israel's southern border. The ouster of the Mubarak regime in Egypt this February upended the longstanding status quo between Cairo and Jerusalem, in which successive Israeli governments could depend on a bilateral relationship that, if not warm, was at least predictable.

The groundwork for that "cold peace" had been laid at Camp David, Maryland, in 1978, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat formally agreed to normalize relations with the Jewish state. Sadat's decision was deeply controversial -- and dangerous. (Sadat himself paid the ultimate price for it three years later, dying at the hands of militants from Egypt's most extreme Islamist group, the Gama'a Islamiya.) It did, however, turn out to be durable; Hosni Mubarak, Sadat's successor, understood theneed for good working ties with Israel -- and helped erect the military, economic, and security mechanisms needed to preserve stability between the two countries.

Now, Egypt's revolution has called those arrangements into question. Politically, Mubarak's ouster has paved the way for the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's powerful and previously outlawed Islamist movement, which now stands poised to dominate upcoming parliamentary elections (currently scheduled for November). Even ahead of them, however, Cairo's caretaker government has made some disturbing changes in strategic direction, resuming long-stalled diplomatic relations with onetime regional rival Iran and softening its attitudes toward the Palestinian Authority's main Islamist movement, Hamas.

Attitudes toward Israel are also shifting. An April poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Egyptians believe the Camp David Accords--and by extension normalized relations with Israel--should be annulled. That, too, is the preference of the Muslim Brotherhood. If it does win big in this fall's  elections, there are fears in Israel that the security arrangements carefully erected with Cairo over the past three decades could fall by the wayside, as the two countries enter a new cycle of conflict.

But the most immediate concern relates to security. In the midst of Egypt's ferment last spring, the country's military redeployed to the Sinai, spurred by fears that the desert region's indigenous tribes could become an additional source of instability for Mubarak's embattled regime. His subsequent fall, however, prompted a retraction of Egyptian forces, leaving the area largely ungoverned -- and making it an inviting geostrategic prize.

Islamic militants have wasted no time filling the resulting void. As of late May, more than 400 members of al Qaeda were believed to have made their way to the Sinai, exploiting the region's rising criminality and lawlessness to gain a foothold. The Egyptian government, meanwhile, appears unable to secure the area, unwilling to do so, or both. The mid-August attack outside the Israeli resort city of Eilat by terrorists who had infiltrated via the Sinai only confirmed these suspicions -- and precipitated an unprecedented crisis in Israeli-Egyptian relations.

TO ISRAEL'S NORTH, a different sort of problem is unfolding. In Syria, resilient grassroots protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad have raged for months, notwithstanding the government's increasingly brutal response. The consensus in Israeli policy circles is that the Assad regime's days are numbered. But opinions among experts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as to when exactly that will happen, and what sort of regime will arise in Assad's wake, are far less unified.

For Israel, the answers matter a great deal. Syria has historically styled itself as Israel's mortal enemy, and in that role supported and sustained terrorist groups (Palestinian and otherwise) targeting the Jewish state. Over the past two decades, it also has forged a strong partnership with the Islamic Republic of Iran, colluding to arm the Shi'ite Hezbollah militia in Lebanon and closely coordinating anti-Israeli and anti-Western activities with the ayatollahs in Tehran. As such, Assad's potential demise holds out the tantalizing promise of a less antagonistic regional neighbor, greater security on Israel's northern front, and a major strategic blow to the Iranian regime.

For the time being, though, Syria's contortions are generating no shortage of instability for Israel. That much was demonstrated in dramatic fashion in May and June, when the Assad regime, seeking to divert attention from its internal rebellion, allowed Palestinian protesters to attempt to breach the country's common border with Israel, leading to armed clashes with the Israeli military. And as Syria's disorder deepens, Israelis fear that such provocations could become more frequent -- and more destabilizing.

THEN THERE ARE the Palestinians. While the West Bank and Gaza Strip so far have proved largely immune from the ferment taking place elsewhere in the Arab world, the activism that has accompanied the "Arab Spring" has turned out to be infectious.

The first signs of real change in the traditionally stagnant politics of the Palestinian Authority came in April, when the government of Mahmoud Abbas unexpectedly announced a merger with its main Islamist opposition, Hamas. Such a marriage of convenience might be good for the Palestinian polity-- which has been bitterly divided since Hamas's hostile takeover of the Gaza Strip in early 2007 -- but its effects on relations with Israel would be ruinous. With Hamas committed to creating a Palestine that stretches, in the words of its covenant, "from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea," normal relations between a hybrid Palestinian government and Israel are difficult to imagine. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as much in his May address to Congress, when he asserted that his government "will not negotiate with a Palestinian government backed by the Palestinian version of al Qaeda."

Fortunately, cementing a lasting union has turned out to be far more difficult than either Hamas or Fatah initially thought. Divisions over everything from representation in government to the future role of current PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (whom Hamas hates) have kept the two sides from reaching any consensus. Discussions regarding "reconciliation" have been officially tabled until later this year.

But if a unity government isn't imminent, an even more potentially dangerous development is. In recent months, Abbas and company have stepped up their plans to abandon bilateral negotiations with Israel and unilaterally declare statehood through the United Nations. The strategy is a bold one. By scrapping the peace process begun in Oslo, Norway, in 1993 in favor of international recognition via UN vote, Abbas clearly hopes to generate new pressure on Israel to concede on a range of issues (including final borders, sovereignty of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian "right of return") that were supposed to be bilaterally agreed-upon. But his efforts have set the stage for a new crisis, since there is no framework governing relations between Israel and the new state of "Palestine" -- and tensions could easily escalate if the Palestinian government proves that it cannot, or will not, ensure Israel's security.

As if all this weren't enough, Israel is now weathering its own version of the Arab Spring -- albeit in rather more civilized fashion than is visible elsewhere in the region. Since July, hundreds of thousands of Israelis, discontented over everything from the high price of cottage cheese to prohibitive housing costs in the country's desirable metropolitan areas, have staged peaceful marches, sit-ins, and protests. The movement, which some pundits have taken to calling the "Israeli summer," has presented a costly domestic distraction to Netanyahu's coalition government, now grappling with new and vexing national security headaches.

YET ALL OF THESE CHALLENGES, while difficult, might be manageable, if only Israel's relationship with its most important strategic partner, the United States, were stable. But the past two years have seen a distinct chill creep into the political dialogue between Washington and Jerusalem. To be sure, bilateral cooperation can still be said to be flourishing on a range of issues -- counterterrorism, military training, and missile defense, to name just a few. Yet the Obama administration's heavy-handed pressure on Israel to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians, and its abandonment of the appearance of being an impartial broker in that process, has injected considerable friction into the "special relationship." So has the White House's meandering regional policy, with its dithering on Syria and halfhearted approach to countering Iran's nuclear program. Cumulatively, these dynamics have brought the strategic partnership that serves as a key guarantor of Israel's security to what is arguably its lowest ebb since it was codified in the early 1980s.

The resulting view now held by Israeli policymakers was neatly encapsulated not long ago by Moshe Arens, a former minister of defense and of foreign affairs. "You would expect Israel, a democracy, to welcome the downfall of dictatorships in neighboring countries, and see the Arab Spring bring freedom to the Arab World," Arens wrote in an August op-ed in the liberal daily Ha'aretz. "But in recent months we have learned to our dismay that the downfall of Arab dictators may bring in its wake chaos and anarchy."

The result is a more cautious and conservative Israeli polity. More than at any time in recent memory, policymakers in Jerusalem are disinclined to take risks for peace, or to seek compromise in the service of regional acceptance. Rather, Israel is now animated by the notion that, as Arens has put it, "it is a time for watching and waiting to see how things are going to turn out."

Even Sharansky, for all his optimism about Arab democracy, is likely to approve of such an approach.

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About the Author
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.