Israel and the Arab Spring: But the Season Doesn’t Matter

At first glance, it appears that the Arab Spring has had an isolating effect on Israel, and damaged its regional position and strategic calculus. But this is only impressionistic, because the Arab Spring has coincided with changed domestic politics in Israel: a right-wing government more or less supportive of illiberal efforts among secular nationalists, religious Zionists, and the haredi.

Indeed, Israeli leaders and commentators themselves feed into this impression of the Arab Spring as a new development Israel must contend with. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees a dark tide of intolerance of religious fundamentalism diametrically opposed to Israel’s democratic values. The (not unexpected) rise of Islamist parties where open elections have taken place is a trend that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has called “very, very disturbing.” The Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff stated that these trends “are redrawing the range of threats faced by Israel.”

Others argue that the Arab Spring provides an opportunity for Israel to connect to the publics who have taken control of their destiny and will soon be in control of their countries, and together build a new Middle East.

But the reality is that the Arab Spring hasn’t changed Israel’s regional position or strategic calculus to any great degree—at most, it has augmented existing trends. Instead, the challenges the Arab Spring poses for Israel are no different from the broader cyclical challenges Israel has been facing since 1948.

First, there is the claim that the Arab Spring had nothing to do with Israel. But Israelis—particularly in the wake of the attack on the embassy in Cairo—came to see it as another element in the “siege” of Israel.

Ari Shavit at Haaretz says “The combination of the Arab spring with the Palestinian September could create a perfect storm. Since the big Arab revolution is not offering real hope, it awakens rage and hatred. The first wave of rage and hatred was focused on Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gadhafi and Bashar Assad. The second wave will be focused on Israel.”

This is not different from the threats Israel faced from a region-wide Arab nationalism in the aftermath of the 1948 War, the emergence of Nasser’s pan-Arabism, and the efforts to redress the “Arab loss” in both the 1948 and the 1967 wars, and then liberate Palestine.

Second, there is nothing new about the fact that the Arab Spring, ostensibly about domestic issues, also drags Israel in, particularly in Egypt. This is no different from the rousing anti-Israel rhetoric found pre-Arab Spring in state-run media, religious sermons, and among professional associations.

Third, the argument that the Arab Spring is isolating Israel does not pose a new condition for Israel. Pre-Arab Spring, Turkish-Israeli relations were already growing cold; the global BDS movement was already advancing; and the peace process with the Palestinians has been in constant crisis since the Oslo Accords were signed—indeed, the Accords themselves were subject to several crises that some feared would derail them before they were put into place.

This is no different from the isolation Israel experienced after the 1967 War, when African, Eastern European, and Asian states began severing ties with Israel; when delegitimization of Zionism—that it is a racist ideology—was promoted at the United Nations; and peace talks with the Arab states were alternately called for and rejected.

Finally, discussions of how Israel must respond to these conditions are also recycled. Reports that Israel is searching for new friends (e.g., those it can count on to be at odds with Islamists or other Middle Eastern states for geostrategic reasons) are no different from David Ben-Gurion’s “periphery strategy,” in which Israel would leap over its immediate Arab neighbors to strategic ties with Iran, Turkey, and some African states.

An overly-assertive strategy is not warranted under the current circumstances. Rather, a wait-and-see posture allows Israel to gauge where these dynamics are going, and to respond accordingly to specific changes and issues.

Israel is on edge as a result of the Arab Spring, as to be expected. But it will not be affected in a major way because it has already dealt with these similar circumstances. Certainly Israel needs to construct clear tactical policies for responding to the Arab Spring and the changed regional dynamic. But this, too, shall pass. Israel has successfully made it through (most would say muddled through) past changes. This is in part because the changes that take place in the region are new only in the form they take, but not the patterns and conditions they represent.

The Arab Spring is of course an important development in the Middle East, restructuring parts of Arab politics. But nobody knows how things will turn out, even in the short term. It’s not clear how strong the moderate Islamists parties who’ve won in Tunisia and Egypt will be in parliament and in governing, faced with harder-line Islamists, non-Islamists, and remnants of the old regimes. And the successes of the regimes in the Gulf have also demonstrated that the Arab Spring is a contained phenomenon.

Already, there are signs that the Arab Spring has changed Hamas’s calculations: the organization has announced it would accept non-violence as a tactic against Israel, would accept the pre-1967 borders as the foundation for a Palestinian state, and might even consider a peace treaty with Israel under the right conditions—even as it reduces ties with Syria.

This only strengthens the sense that Israel can do little but go slow.


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