What Israel could learn from the Arab Spring

Israel could transform the Arab Spring's uncertainty into opportunity.

Zooming out from the protest (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Dalsh)
Zooming out from the protest
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Dalsh)
The Arab Spring—or Winter—is, as Winston Churchill might have put it, “one of those cases in which the imagination is baffled by the facts.” Its uncertain path is at the same time both comforting and worrying. But precisely because the Arab Spring has defied imagination, commentators ought not use the seasonal reference. Whereas seasons are stable, the driving forces of the Arab Spring – namely, people - are mercurial. Rather than accept the development as predetermined, Israel—itself a testament to imagination over fact—may yet transform the Arab Spring’s uncertainty into opportunity.
Undeniably, reasons to worry are abound. To the north, Assad reduces his own people to shreds with chilling determination, while the predominantly Sunni opposition has already received the blessings of al-Qaeda. Neither prospect bodes well.
Meanwhile, down south, it appears Israel must bolster its Egyptian border in the face of lawlessness, while the Egypt-Israel peace treaty undergoes public scrutiny with the imprimatur of government hopefuls. That such an important treaty is even being questioned is enough to rob sleep from Israeli brass.
Among the first casualties of the Egyptian Spring was the Israel-Egypt Gaza "understanding." How should Israel read this development? Will Hamas be emboldened? Even if Hamas would rather avoid conflict, it may still be unable to prevent rival armed groups from attacking Israel.
Egypt has shifted, but what about Jordan to the east? A Palestinian-majority touched by the Arab Spring could spell the end of yet another Israel ally - increasing Israel’s isolation.
Rather than wax optimistic, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has warned that elections do not always make a true democracy. Israel has not yet forgotten how it lost its erstwhile ally Iran or the outcome of the 2006 Gaza elections.
Taken collectively, the Arab Spring seems to have brought together Israel’s nemeses - such as Hezbollah and Syria - under the aegis of Iran, which is posturing itself to benefit from the Arab Spring while challenging Israel’s regional heavyweight title.
The combination of surprises is disheartening for Israel, which has a predilection for sustaining the status quo; uncertainties only reinforce mistakes, and Israel’s margin for error is slim. Indeed, what makes the Arab Spring so worrying is that nobody really knows where it is going.
So how to stop worrying? By recognizing opportunity in adversity. For example, a democratically-elected Egypt that reassumes its role as leader in the Arab world automatically implies a diminution of Iranian influence.  Israel must identify and engage with historic openings and must align itself on the right side of history as it develops.
Elliott Abrams from the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) postulates that we may witness a storm before the calm; radical party victories will give way to moderate successors on prosperity platforms.
If this holds any truth, Egypt and Jordan are far from lost; their respective transformations may give way to true peace between true democracies.Perhaps the Arab Spring’s most promising achievement is pushing public opinion to the forefront of Arab agenda. Radical regimes will have to choose between liquidation or moderation when it comes to answering Arab Spring-inspired public pressure.
Interestingly, keen to maintain public quiet, Hamas has assembled an anti-rocket squad. The PA has also quietly stifled a Palestinian Spring, banning demonstrations and censoring a lampooning of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. Some have suggested that even the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement was a pragmatic decision designed to placate divided public opinion. Meanwhile, Hamas’ Mousa Abu Marzouk has stated that a peace deal with Fatah would equal a truce with Hamas. Far from being inopportune, now may be time to gauge the Palestinian mood for peace.
None of these developments are predetermined and it is difficult for Israel not to feel the noose tightening. Uncertainty is foreboding; but within the uncertainties lie opportunities - cases where fact baffles the imagination. Seeing openings is a matter of resolute imagination; they are there if Israel strives to see them. The Arab Spring is proof that no one knows what lies ahead, so expect the unexpected. Israel ought to prepare for the worst, hope for the best, and - with a little imagination - learn to stop worrying and love the Arab Spring.
The writer is an Argov Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya.