Israel Must Tread Carefully During the Arab Spring

The current upheaval in the Arab world will have a profound impact on Israeli foreign and defense policy in the coming years; it has already proven that the policy of fencing ourselves in has lost its effectiveness.

Israel's regional policy boils down to erecting security, economic and most important, cultural walls that separate it from its immediate vicinity. Shimon Peres' dreams of a "new Middle East" based on regional cooperation have long since been shelved and replaced with the "villa in the jungle" approach espoused by Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, who view Israel as the progressive bastion of the West in a Middle East of Arabs and Muslims.

In his address to Congress last month, the prime minister quoted English novelist George Eliot, one of the precursors of Zionism in the 19th century, who said that a Jewish state would "shine like a bright star of freedom amid the despotisms of the East." This is the basis for Netanyahu's policy of "economic peace." As a finance minister in the last decade, he talked about economic growth behind walls of separation, based on the South Korean model vis-a-vis North Korea. As prime minister, he demonstrated over the past two years that the trick works. Israel enjoyed quiet on its borders and an economic boom, as the countries in the vicinity sank into social crisis and governmental decadence before being engulfed by revolutions.

morocco arab spring - AP - May 29 2011

The demonstrations at the border fence in the Golan Heights on Nakba Day last month and on Naksa Day this week ended the idyll and showed Israelis that they are not cut off from what is happening on the other side of the wall. Thirty-seven years of quiet in the Golan Heights came to an abrupt end only because Bashar Assad's regime is fighting for its life.

The great majority of Israelis are still isolated from the revolutions of the Arab Spring. Majdal Shams, the Druze village in the Golan Heights where the demonstrations took place, is situated at an extreme point - the last bend before the ascent to the ski slopes of Mount Hermon. The events there were not felt in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Rishon Letzion or Haifa, whose residents are now planning their summer vacations abroad.

But regional upheavals have always had profound impact on Israel's foreign and defense policy. The Egyptian revolution in 1952 led to the cross-border fedayeen attacks from Gaza and to the Sinai Campaign. The revolutions in Syria in the 1960s led to the Six-Day War. The attempts within Jordan to topple the regime there, in 1958 and in 1970, drew Israel closer to the West and Israel's leaders closer to the Hashemite royal house. The Lebanese civil war sucked Israel into a long-term occupation of southern Lebanon. The Iranian revolution of 1979 forged an avowed and powerful enemy to Israel. The Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War in its wake shattered the "eastern front." The collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up the radical Arab regimes, fomented the peace process of the 1990s. The internal changes in Turkey deprived Israel of an important ally and embroiled it in last year's flotilla crisis.

This long list shows that the current wave of revolutions in the Arab states will have a far greater effect on Israel's foreign and defense policy in the years ahead than now appears to be the case. Fear of the Egyptian revolution has already prompted Netanyahu to speed up the building of the fence along the southern border and to talk about increasing the defense budget. The internecine strife in Syria is especially dangerous for Israel because of its geographical proximity, Syria's military might and its connection to Hezbollah and Iran, and the open dispute over the Golan Heights. All signs show that the unrest will only increase, casting doubt on the survival of a united Syria.

Israel must be careful not to be sucked into the internal struggles in the Arab world, or get itself entangled in unnecessary wars. Concurrently, it must probe for strategic opportunities - for example, a scenario in which the Assad regime is replaced by a pro-Western government that will cut itself off from Iran and Hezbollah. Israel needs to look for cracks in the wall and at the same time strengthen its ties with the United States, whose regional system of alliances has been undermined and now needs Israel more than in the past.