Uprisings opportunity for new Israel foreign policy

Rather than focus on peace treaties, Israel should focus on building people-to-people ties around the Islamic world.

Hamas rally 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Hamas rally 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The explosion of popular protests last December against the ruling order in the Arab world was one of those moments in world history that caused observers to watch with bated breath. As the protests spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and beyond, those of us old enough to remember the 1989 Velvet Revolution could not help but wonder where it all would lead, whether dictators like Hosni Mubarak would use their militaries to quash the protests and what true democracy in the Arab world would mean for the West in general, and for Israel in particular.
A year later, the dust has yet to settle. As Robert Satloff explained on page 13, much has remained the same in the region despite the tectonic shifts underway. Further, as Dore Gold explains above, the dangers to Israel are significant and real.
Alongside the dangers, however, the Arab uprisings also present Israel with challenges and opportunities. It would be hard to overstate the potential consequences for Israel of a strategic alliance between an Islamist government in Cairo and the Hamas regime in Gaza, but at the same time it would be hard to overstate the opportunity posed by the notion that the Assad family could be permanently removed from the scene in Syria.
There, as in Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood- led government would pose its own dangers, but the radical Sunni movement is unlikely to serve as a conduit between Iran and Lebanon as the current regime in Damascus has. A break in the Tehran- Hezbollah supply chain would arguably be the most important security development Israel – and the one million Israelis who live in range of Hezbollah rockets – could hope for.
IF THERE is one thing the Arab uprisings have shown Israel and the West it is this: The foreign policy model that provides arms to dictators in exchange for political and economic friendship is unsustainable. Israel was content for American arms to be provided to dictators like Hosni Mubarak and King Hussein and more than prepared to countenance their repressive regimes, just as long as they supported political peace with Israel. The Oslo Accords, too, were based on this notion, but Yasser Arafat proved to be a harder nut than Mubarak: He took the money, but refused to deliver the goods.
One result of this policy was a clear message to the Arab masses. Our security is more important than theirs. As a result, nowhere, including among the Palestinians, is hatred of Israel more vibrant or potent than Egypt, with the possible exception of Lebanon (before the talkbacks come pouring in, I should state for the record that there are certainly other contributing factors to this phenomenon, most importantly state- and mosque-run anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incitement).
In the short term, Israel has no choice but to ride out the consequences of this misguided policy and to try to reclaim the moral high ground. The likelihood of traditional military conflict is next to zero, but the likelihood of another round of fighting with Hamas, Hezbollah or both is extremely high.
In the longer term, however, the Arab uprisings present Israel with an opportunity to reclaim the moral high ground by supporting democracy and human rights in any and all situations, even when they are likely to be detrimental to Israel in the short-to-medium term. Egypt is unlikely to take on the IDF in a conventional war, but the new government in Cairo could certainly bow to popular pressure there and annul central parts of the peace treaty with Egypt, like the clauses that call for natural gas sales to Israel.
In such a case, the correct thing for Israel to do would be to honor the will of the Arab peoples, redouble our efforts to defend our borders and civilians and to secure other sources of natural gas. Our central message must be sharp and consistent: We are here to stay, and we can thrive without your active cooperation, but we would love to cooperate with you and to have true, lasting, honest peace.
ULTIMATELY, THEN, the Arab Spring could serve as an opportunity for Israel to re-think important aspects of its public diplomacy and political programs. In this respect, Israel’s relationship with one (albeit non-Arab) Muslim country could serve as a model to guide Israeli leaders as they redefine our relations with countries closer to home. That country is Indonesia.
Whereas Israel has historically driven toward peace treaties with enemy states like Egypt and Jordan, Islamic countries further afield have been left to the back burner. There are good reasons for this approach: There has never been any chance of a military conflict with Indonesia, so there has never been a sense of urgency to make “peace” with the world’s largest Muslim nation.
But as the events in Egypt over the past year have shown clearly, there is a yawning gap between “non-belligerence” and peace. Three decades after Camp David, most Egyptians continue to boycott Israeli artists and shun ties with Israeli professionals, and the Egyptian press continues to be a prime source for violent, repulsive anti-Semitism in the world today. A contact in Alexandria told me recently that it would be very unwise to visit Egypt with a Jewish name like Friedman, and that walking the streets there with a kippa today is simply unthinkable.
In contrast, there is no peace deal with Indonesia. Israel does not even have formal diplomatic ties with Jakarta. All we’ve got with Indonesia is trade – $300 million in bilateral trade in 2010 – and rich, expanding cultural ties. Indonesian journalists, doctors and graduate students visit Israel freely (in this case, “freely” means that Israel welcomes them in, and they do not face repercussions upon returning home), and Israelis do the same thing in the opposite direction.
Perhaps the Arab uprisings are an opportunity for Israel to pursue a new type of foreign policy, one that concentrates less on formal political ties and more on people-to-people relationships. Ultimately, that is what will secure our place in the region, and the peace of the region as a whole.

The writer is opinion editor of The Jerusalem Post.