For Obama, Egypt Protests May Garner a New Friend: Israel

This moment is Netanyahu's chance to increase cooperation with the U.S.

Egypt's revolution is understandably causing anxiety in Israel. The nightmare scenario of a collapse of the Mubarak regime and creation of an Islamic republic across the border has for years haunted Israel's leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke yesterday of "efforts to maintain stability and security in our region," succinctly summing up Israel's change-averse foreign policy.

Israel cannot influence the upheavals in the Arab world, but it must not settle for expressions of concern voiced by anonymous security sources or by seeking refuge behind the worn barricades of "there's no partner for dialogue" and "we always said you can't trust the Arabs." The state would do better to look beyond them and to spy out the hidden opportunity in the disruption of the old regional order. If Netanyahu plays his cards right, he could leverage the fall of neighboring regimes into a significant improvement in Israel's relations with the United States.

obama - White House - October 3, 2010
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, October 3, 2010.White House

After a few days of indecision President Barack Obama rallied to the side of the protesters and publicly distanced himself from Hosni Mubarak. Faithful to his ideology, Obama abandoned America's protege for vague promises of democracy, but his considerations were also practical: He presumably judged that Mubarak's regime is a lost cause and that it's better to be on the winning side. Obama's position must worry the leaders of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which fear similar uprisings at home and now recognize that the Americans will throw them under the bus.

Obama wants to be popular among the citizens of Arab states at the expense of their leaders, as he tried to do in his Cairo speech some 18 months ago. He is betting that the new regimes will be grateful and will continue to rely on Washington for diplomatic and military support. But he is taking a risk: What if the revolution doesn't stop at the moderate interim stage and keeps going till it reaches Muslim extremism? And what will the United States do in the interim phase, when the Middle East is sunk in uncertainty?

When Obama and his advisers look at a map of the region, they see only one state they can count on: Israel. The regime is stable, and support for America is well-entrenched. Obama may dislike Netanyahu and his policy toward the Palestinians, but after losing his allies in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and with the uneasiness gripping his friends in Jordan and the Gulf, Washington can't afford to be choosy. It will have to move closer to Israel, and for another reason as well: An anxious Israel is an Israel that is prone to military adventures, and that's the last thing Obama needs right now.

Now is the time for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to justify their claim that Israel is a "villa in the jungle," the West's outpost in the Middle East. They should use the regional crisis to heighten security and diplomatic cooperation with Washington, and not to expand the settlements. Israel, too, can't be too choosy, after losing strategic alliances with both Turkey and Egypt within a year.

This weekend's phone conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, after a prolonged estrangement, was the first sign of their awareness of the opportunities represented by the crisis. Today German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has forged close ties with Obama, arrives in Israel. Netanyahu could use her as a channel of communication to the White House and give her the honor of restoring relations between Jerusalem and Washington. It's Netanyahu's opportunity.