Michael Koplow and Benny Morris come to opposite conclusions about how the Arab “Spring” affects Israel’s national security. Why? Because Koplow rightly privileges economic and military capabilities while Morris turns to ideology as the master variable.
Koplow concludes that, “the states on Israel’s borders [are] content to let the status quo remain despite the upheaval in their internal politics.” Yet Morris explains, change in the Arab world “represents a dramatic, abrupt tightening of the noose.” Moreover, “The lynchpin of the siege, offering the most palpable and immediate threat to Israel, is of course Iran…”
A central argument for Koplow is that neighboring Arab states lack resources to launch a war. Serious economic difficulties make war with Israel less likely. Egypt, Jordan, and Syria lack the resources to fund a war. Egypt and Jordan would further worsen their economic situation with the resultant loss of U.S. aid.
Not only do these states lack their own resources but they also lack an external patron. There is no Soviet Union to counter-balance Israel’s superpower ally in Washington.
Contrast that with Morris’s piece. The coming to power of Islamists in Egypt, their growth in Jordan, and their likely victory in Syria spells trouble for Israel. They reject Israel and will act militarily consistent with their anti-Israel beliefs.
For Morris, then, ideology is paramount. Islamism’s general hostility toward Israel is determinative. Islamism is so powerful that Morris would say Islamists would willfully ignore the huge imbalance in forces and economic risks and try to take on Israel anyway on the battlefield. His enemy is monolithic and irrational.
In terms of how the world works, I am much more sympathetic to Koplow in this case. I tend to be skeptical of putting too much emphasis on culture, ideology, and religion.
Historically, perhaps Morris would point to Israel-Hamas or Israel-Hizbollah battles to prove his point. Yet both are more like non-state actors than governments. The fact that they have often been deterred from attacking Israel even in smaller doses (e.g. rockets) and have never launched a conventional offensive says a lot about the importance of capabilities and balance of forces even with a hostile ideology.
Meanwhile, no neighboring Arab state has moved air and ground forces against Israel since 1973. That is curiously absent from Morris’s stylized Arab-Israeli history. For the most recent 60% of Israel’s history (1973-2012), it has faced serious violence but not a conventional military attack.
If Islamist politicians take full control in Egypt (roadblock: the armed forces), Jordan (roadblock: the monarchy), or Syria (roadblock: Asad regime), we may get a better test of the Morris-Koplow disagreement. Until then, I’m with Koplow.