Everyone knows that if you ask three Israelis what they think, you’ll get 10
opinions. Yet on a recent trip to Israel, I heard everyone from government
officials to academics and cab drivers deliver the same refrain: “What Arab
Spring? This is the Arab Winter.”
We appear to be witnessing the
analytical equivalent of a lunar eclipse in Israel: a rare moment of
Of course, Israelis historically have reason to worry about
the manifold threats in their neighborhood. And now, with spreading
instability resulting from a contagion of protests, the hydra of anti-Israel
populism and Islamism threatens to undo years of Israeli diplomatic efforts to
ensure their country’s place among the Arab states.
To be sure, the Great
Arab Revolt could still produce regimes that threaten Israel. But it hasn’t
In Tunisia, where the whole thing started, Zine al- Abedine Ben Ali
was no friend of Israel. In the 1980s, he hosted the PLO, and apart from a brief
thaw in the Oslo years, showed no warmth toward the Jewish state. Expect the
same now. If the Israelis can ignore the unsettling Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric
coming from the Nahda party, they will recognize that Tunisia may be unfriendly,
but it remains a weak Parisian exurb that poses no threat to the Jewish
Egypt is a potentially bigger problem. After all, the Israelis
have relied on Cairo to keep the peace on their southern border, if not the
entire region. As the saying goes, “If Egypt goes to war, the Middle East
goes with it.”
But the chances of war with the new Egypt are currently
low. Its economy is in the toilet, with foreign investors spooked and the
corrupt patronage network that Mubarak created on the verge of
collapse. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood is as powerful as the recent
polls suggest, it is increasingly apparent that the real struggle for control of
Egypt is between the military and the internal security apparatus.
actors rely heavily on US assistance, and neither will want to jeopardize it.
So, unless the Islamists manage to purge them altogether (unlikely), Israeli
interests for the time being appear safe.
Yemen is a basket case.
Analysts say it could become a hotbed for terrorism. Newsflash: it is already.
Of course, it could get worse, but more for America than for Israel. Underwear
bombers and printer cartridges full of explosives haven’t been heading for
Jerusalem, have they?
In Syria, regime change could pose a challenge to Israel.
But could Bashar Assad’s successor really be worse? Though Israel’s northern
border has remained quiet since the October 1973 war, the Syrians have been a
strong ally to Iran and spilled plenty of Israeli blood by proxy, through
Hezbollah and Hamas. In many ways, the fall of Assad would likely be a good
Of course, Islamists could inherit Syria, but they would have
little room to maneuver against Israel. After nearly a year of unrest,
Syria is exhausted and impoverished, and Israel has a far superior
military. For now, Israel must ensure that, amid the chaos, Syria’s
chemical weapons stockpiles do not fall into the wrong hands.
there’s Libya. Muammar Gaddafi once patronized Palestinian terrorists who
attacked Israel. But that was decades ago. The greatest Libyan threat to Israel
now comes from the many weapons that went missing in the war that raged
throughout 2011, which are allegedly pouring into Gaza with the help of Beduin
in the Sinai Peninsula. But the means for those weapons to arrive in Gaza
have not changed. The Israelis will need to continue to deny these weapons entry
via smuggling routes and tunnels.
A better-armed Hamas is worrisome, but
Hamas is a train wreck. In addition to the financial hardships owing to
international sanctions against Iran (the group’s primary patron), the ongoing
carnage in Syria has forced its external leaders to flee Damascus. It’s
unclear that any other Arab state will bear the burden of harboring the group,
given the expected fallout with Washington.
Notably, Hamas appears to be
wooing Jordan. This is obviously cause for concern in Israel, which made
peace with the Hashemite Kingdom. In 1999, King Hussein of Jordan threw Hamas
out of the country, but his son Abdullah is now mending fences with the group in
hopes of wooing the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood into a political
But, he too, will likely deny Hamas safe haven. He
wants to shore up his rule, but cannot threaten his alliance with Washington. If
Abdullah fell, that would mean trouble for Israel. But that’s an unlikely
scenario for the near term.
So far, the greatest question mark of the
Arab Spring is the Palestinians.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas has interpreted the protests as a green light to spurn Jerusalem and
Washington to pursue recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.
Abbas reportedly intends to continue this campaign in 2012, challenging the
Israelis in international legal fora and beyond. With no discernible peace
parameters in place, the Palestinian position has become something of a wild
card for Israel.
But for the time being, the Palestinians are unlikely to
launch another intifada. Indeed, while violent groups may attempt more attacks
against Israel on an ad hoc basis, Palestinians leaders in the West Bank quietly
cede that they are still regrouping after an exhausting round of fighting with
the Israelis during the second intifada (2000-2005).
Of course, the sands
shift daily. Israeli security analysts must struggle to make sense of the
ongoing instability. As they do, they continue to churn out new worst-case
scenarios on a daily or weekly basis.
Here’s the best of the bad news:
the Arab protests amount to a much-needed reminder to the Israelis that their
region is filled with Islamists, and that paying off dictators cannot solve
Israel’s problems in the long term.
But here’s real bad news: the Arab
protests are a distraction from the threat of a nuclear Iran. The regime in
Tehran continues to inch closer to the nuclear threshold, but the Israeli
response is still fuzzy. Will the Israelis neutralize it with force? Has the
Obama administration given them a green light? Judging from the heated debate
inside Israel, and the outward disagreements with Washington, Israel’s way
forward is far from settled.
The Arab Spring may feel like a harsh
winter, but the real winds of war continue to blow farther east.
writer is a former terrorism analyst at the US Treasury and now serves as vice
president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.