A new view of the Arab Spring

The changes in the Arab world are not all necessarily bad for Israel.

Free Syrian Army soldiers 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Free Syrian Army soldiers 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 groupthink.
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 yet.
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 state.
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.
Both 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 thing.
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.
Finally, 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 partnership.
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.
The 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.