Editor's Notes: There goes the neighborhood - what now?

Rather than wringing our hands, we’d better look to constructively influence this era-defining process of regional change.

Muslim Brotherhood protests (R) 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Muslim Brotherhood protests (R) 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Our region is in the grip of an era-defining series of popular uprisings. There’s no telling which regimes might fall next and what might replace them. And here, in tiny Israel, we’re understandably worried.
We’ve witnessed the spectacular ouster of our problematic but key regional ally, president Hosni Mubarak. We’re well aware that our other neighboring peace partner, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is also threatened by a popular discontent born of absent freedoms and, especially, economic hardship. While anti-Israel sentiment has been emphatically marginal to the protests in those countries and others, we know full well that in both Egypt and Jordan, peace with Israel hardly enjoys profound public support.
We’ve seen some exceptionally brave souls risk their lives by taking to the streets of Iran. But, in contrast to June 2009, the mullahs and their Revolutionary Guards were well-prepared this time, and deployed in huge numbers to prevent most protesters so much as reaching the main squares, much less occupying them. Syria’s ruthless leadership is proving similarly adept in thwarting popular protests before they can even begin to gather momentum, in part by shutting down Internet social communications networks. The emerging sorry picture seems to be one of relatively moderate regimes conceding to popular demands for change, a delusional and vicious Libyan leadership violently resisting, and the savvy, cold-hearted, most dangerous Iranians and Syrians looking set, for now at least, to ride out the storm.
Exacerbating our concern is the striking failure of our much-vaunted intelligence services to see any of this coming. It is argued in our military circles that since the chief of the staff of the Egyptian army failed to predict that his people were about to take to the streets in their regime-shifting masses, his Israeli equivalent could hardly be expected to better forecast the looming upheaval. But, actually, our intelligence chiefs could and should be expected to more astutely read the mood of the neighborhood and brace accordingly. Where Egyptian intelligence was, perhaps understandably, too deep in the forest to see the wood for the trees, our intelligence experts are meant to be dispassionate analysts, charged with interpreting the shifting pressures in neighboring states precisely to ensure that Israel cannot be taken by surprise.
Troubling us still further is the refusal of some in the free world, in defiance of all this evidence to the contrary, to internalize even now that Middle East unhappiness is not rooted in the failure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon’s Tuesday interview with Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn was a particularly dismal case in point. Generously allowing that “there are other problems in the world,” Asselborn nevertheless put aside the demands for freedom from autocratic rule that are being pressed in most every repressed nation in this region to declare loftily that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is the most crucial one for me” and then to blame Israel, and solely Israel, for the inability to solve it.
In the mindsets of willfully blind politicians such as Asselborn, intifada terrorism, and the scars and misgivings it produced, is forgotten. Likewise, Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from south Lebanon and Gaza, and the upsurge in rocket attacks they spawned. The notion of any legitimate Israeli claim to the heartland of the biblical Jewish narrative in Judea and Samaria gives no pause whatsoever. The readiness of successive Israeli governments to forgo that claim in most, if not all, of that disputed territory is taken for granted. The refusal of the Palestinian leadership to seize successive Israeli governments’ peace overtures is ignored or excused. And the idea that Israel, nine miles wide at its narrowest point, might, in the mad Middle East of early 2011, feel a certain reluctance to offer dramatic territorial bargains to a Palestinian leadership whose intentions are dubious and whose stability is still more so – that idea resonates not a whit.
“I really cannot understand that such an intelligent people like the Israelis – who have suffered so much in history, and who have built this wonderful country – can see only the short-term future,” declared our self-styled “critical friend” Asselborn. “They don’t think too much about what will happen in the mid- and long-term.”
Oh, but we do, Mr. Asselborn. We agonize continually about our mid- and long-term future. We seek relentlessly to guarantee it by forging stable alliances whenever and wherever we detect a viable partner truly committed to reconciliation. But we also know all too well that we simply won’t have a mid- or a long-term future if we conclude lousy deals that leave us existentially vulnerable to duplicitous regimes or to leaderships that can be swept aside. And the events currently unfolding in Egypt and beyond aren’t doing a great deal to bolster our confidence.
HAVING SAID all that, worrying about the region and bemoaning the challenges it poses to us isn’t terribly helpful. Okay. So there goes the neighborhood. Now, what are we going to do about it?
A first step would be to remind ourselves that, just a few short weeks ago, before the Arab masses began taking to the streets, this region was emphatically not moving in helpful directions from an Israeli or Western point of view.
The fact was that the Mubarak era was coming to a close anyway, to be replaced by who knew what. That the Saudi leadership was – and is – aging and uncertain. That Turkey was slipping away from the West.
American influence was plainly eroding. In 2003, with the US having asserted itself in Iraq, a terrified Iran was freezing its nuclear weapons program, Syria had been prompted to leave Lebanon and Libya to abandon its nuclear drive. Seven years later, before the rise of Arab people-power, the Iranians were forging ahead toward the bomb, Lebanon had fallen back into the hands of the Syrians and the Iranians, Hezbollah was equipped for a war with Israel in which Israeli civilian fatalities would likely outstrip military fatalities for the first time, Hamas was running Gaza, and Jordan’s King Abdullah was visibly reconsidering his alliance with the West and beginning to tilt toward Tehran.
Hardly an ideal state of affairs.
So while Israel and the more clear-sighted members of the Western world are sensibly concerned by the current regional instability, and rightly wary of the capacity of Islamist forces in their various guises to subvert Arab peoples’ desire for freedom and opportunity, perhaps, rather than wringing our hands, we’d be better off trying to constructively influence the process.
For a start, the US and the rest of the West might act upon Natan Sharansky’s suggestion in these columns three weeks ago to specifically earmark and condition aid for democratic reform – rather than, say, allowing ongoing financial assistance to be utilized, directly or fungibly, on weapons purchases.
The US and the rest of the West might do well to dramatically expand educational programs for young Arab students at home and abroad – more study places, more scholarships to fund them, and thus more exposure to the values we all want to see prevail when the pieces settle.
And, critically, the US and the rest of the West should do everything they can to create economic opportunity in Arab countries where such help will be welcomed. Not, heaven forbid, to exploit underemployed work forces for Western profit. But, rather, to partner with local Arab enterprises in bolstering existing viable industries, building new factories, funding credible start-up initiatives.
Countries like Egypt face economic challenges, exacerbated by relentless population growth, that even the smartest, least corrupt governments would have been hard-pressed to meet. Those difficulties were a central factor in the gradual rise of public bitterness and frustration that has erupted in the last few weeks. If they can’t be addressed by the uncertain, potentially well-intentioned leaderships that the peoples’ protests will produce, the temptation will only grow for the masses to seek refuge from economic hardship in Islamist certainty.
Much of the West, and certainly the US, is still deep in the throes of financial crisis, and may be reluctant to allocate significant funds to help grapple with economic hardship in the Arab world. But the cost of withholding such assistance, and of allowing countries whose future is today in the balance to slip into the Islamist camp, will be incalculably higher. Financially higher. Ideologically higher. Region-shapingly higher.
ISRAEL HAS for decades helped developing nations maximize their agricultural potential via cutting-edge irrigation techniques, and has surmounted its own lack of natural physical resources by maximizing the economic potential of its natural cerebral resources. With that record and given our overwhelming self-interest in the flourishing of freedom and opportunity among our neighbors, Israel, in an ideal world, would be at the forefront of a concerted international economic outreach effort.
But deep-seated hostility to the Jewish state in the Arab world – hostility, it should be noted at this point, that was strategically fostered even in regimes, like Mubarak’s, ostensibly at peace with Israel – will limit that role in the foreseeable future.
Still, we have already somewhat served our aspirational purpose as a light unto the would-be self-empowering nations of this region – a democratic role model that the Palestinians have begun to try to emulate; a unique exemplar of freedom that, however unconsciously, the Arab protesters are demanding the right to replicate. Speed the day when their societies are honest and self-aware enough to acknowledge the fact.
In the months and years ahead, of course, all of our worst fears could yet be realized. Our wobbling alliances could collapse. A mishandled dash to elections in countries like Egypt – before a genuine range of leadership options can evolve, before the local media is confident and capable enough to report those options honestly, and before the people are certain that they can make their choices free of persecution – could spell the end of a substantive push for real freedoms, particularly if the Islamists fill the vacuums left by the demise of the autocrats. America’s influence could weaken further, and Iran’s grow stronger. We, in Israel, could be faced with no choice but to continue to live by the sword.
But plainly, too, there is a moment of opportunity, if the free world is savvy enough to seize it. The US and the West must act responsibly, including via astute economic assistance, to give freedom a chance in the Arab world. And Israel should emphasize its heart-felt readiness to assist emerging leaderships that deal with it fairly, and to underline the delight it would take in being joined by other honest, open societies in this hitherto benighted region.