Social upheaval and political shifts are nothing new in the modern Middle East. A wave of nationalist revolutions occurred in the 1950s and radical Islamic organizations began inundating the region in the late 1970s. Despite their differences, both nationalism and radical Islam operated from the top down, from the leadership and activists to the general public.
The 2011 Arab Spring flowed in the opposite direction, from the bottom up, from the people to the leadership and from society to the state. The absence of public security, highly centralized governance, low income, surging unemployment and spikes in the prices of fuel and basic goods prompted young people from Morocco in the west to Syria, Jordan and the Gulf States in the east to launch large-scale protests and growing uprisings.
These factors affected the intensity of the events ushered in by an Arab Spring reflecting three factors: the moderate Spring that came to Egypt and Tunisia; the stormy Spring that hit Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain; and the suspended Spring that is slowly creeping toward the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, and the Emirates on the shores of the Persian Gulf.
The homogeneity of the Egyptian and Tunisian societies and the refusal of the military in both countries to act to suppress the uprising spawned a two-headed leadership based upon a unity of contrasts on the one hand and values of political partnership and national consensus on the other. In both, Islam continues to serve as a point of reference for virtues and actions, but does not seek to become state law imposing religious law upon the individual and society.
Syria, Libya and Yemen, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, are ethnically divided, split along tribal lines and subject to interreligious rivalries. For them, the Arab Spring is a raging whirlwind whose end is nowhere in sight. In Libya, military intervention by NATO forces, together with rebels who rose up to challenge the Gadhafi loyalists, tipped the scale in favor of the former. The differences between the geostrategic nature of Yemen and Syria, in their political traditions, in their social development and regional and international standing, turns “the Syrian Spring” into a regional hurricane in comparison to that in Yemen.
The worry in the neighboring Saudi leadership about the winds of revolution crossing into the kingdom, combined with its experience in tribal politics, will probably lead to a dialogue and understanding between Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists and the rebellious tribes on a division of the governmental pie. Saudi Arabia’s steps in containing actions in Yemen reflect its policy toward the erupting upheaval.
Calculated moves granting financial benefits combined with moderate reforms in the areas of civil rights and institutional functions has become the leading strategy of all the Arab monarchies in the region. The rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Morocco and Jordan are operating on the premise that the “Spring” is ready to break out in their countries too, but they are doing their utmost to see that it does not happen.
In Syria, there is no moderating element present. Bashar al-Assad, an Alawi surrounded by a Sunni majority is caught in a web of domestic and regional troubles. Iran, Israel and Turkey, all bordering Syria, are three local superpowers with conflicting and competing interests leading to adversarial relations. The internal upheaval in Syria, causing a rift in the military that is escalating toward civil war, is becoming like a dangerous brushfire that could kindle a wider regional and worldwide conflagration.The disintegration and collapse of the Syrian regime invite direct Turkish and Iranian intervention, which could evolve into a military clash.
One cannot dismiss the possibility that Iran, fearful of losing its grip in Syria, might respond with reprisal actions to disrupt the flow of Saudi oil to the United States and Europe. One may assume that Israel would only benefit from the blow suffered by “the axis of evil” headed by Iran. It will be many years before Syria again constitutes a military threat to Israel. Hezbollah will have to reinvent itself. The image cited by Ehud Barak, that of Israel as a villa surrounded by a jungle, will gain international support, and pressure on Israel to reach a peace agreement based on the 1967 lines will weaken.
However, the Israeli leadership would be mistaken to opt for a strategy of just sitting on its hands. The Arab Spring, which began as an event in its home court, is spreading into the regional arena.
The political alliance developing in Egypt between the military junta and the Muslim Brotherhood is influencing the Egyptian leadership’s attitude toward Hamas, offspring of the Brotherhood. It is pushing for active cooperation between Hamas and Fatah in a two- headed form of leadership within the Palestinian Authority. Egypt was behind the agreement reached to form a joint Palestinian government and for Hamas’ inclusion in PLO institutions.
A similar development is emerging between Hamas and the Jordanian royal family. Contrary to Israeli wishes, the Palestinian issue is gaining regional momentum and turning from a two-sided into a multi-sided issue, and Israel will have difficulty ignoring this trend.
In the erratic age of the Arab Spring, Israeli leaders are not the only ones losing sleep over the question of how the Israeli military and the political echelon should prepare in light of the possibility that Gaza will become Somalia, the West Bank Chechnya, and Lebanon Kosovo. These issues are just as crucial a national security issue for the Arab regimes that see the dangers lurking around them.
Assuming that the Arab Spring in its various forms will continue to be with us for the foreseeable future, the question is which equation Israel must create to live with the emerging reality, while minimizing its drawbacks. This equation must include five factors: quiet support and backing for the Egyptian and Saudi styles; renewed discussion of the Saudi peace plan; rehabilitation of relations with Turkey; openness to the dialogue between Fatah and Hamas within the Palestinian Authority, and an uncompromising battle against what could develop into a Jewish Al Qaida.
A policy that supports the Egyptian and the Saudi Spring, and a concerted fight against Jewish terrorism, would serve to block a possible spread of the storm to Jordan, the Palestinians, the Golan Heights, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Israeli readiness to seek a thawing of relations with Turkey and to reconsider the Saudi initiative for a regional peace, for the purpose of integration in a pro-Western Sunni bloc, appears to be called for by reality. In our turbulent neighborhood, one must come to grips with the fact that what was unacceptable yesterday becomes inevitable tomorrow. A forward-looking Israeli leadership ought to adopt diplomatic creativity, innovative thinking, offer a warm embrace to friends both open and hidden, magnanimity together with toughness, and the substitution of the possible for the desirable.
As what usually happens with ideas, at first they will seem outrageous, then inspired and finally, inevitable. History, as always, is not merciful. It is not forgiving of those who do not sober up, but instead just says: What a pity.
Prof. Shaul Mishal of the Tel Aviv University Political Science Department is an expert on Arab and Palestinian politics.
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