Two Years to the Arab Spring | Analysis |

Israel Remains an 'Island of Stability' Among Hostile Islamist Movements

While it will be harder now for Israel to reach peace agreements with its increasingly Islamic neighbors, the turmoil in the Arab world has also in some ways benefited the security situation here at home.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

From an Israeli perspective, it would appear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's initial reading of the so-called Arab Spring was closer to reality than that of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders.

At first, the awakening of the Arab nations - in an attempt to topple dictatorial regimes that had ruled for decades - was met with justified enthusiasm in the West. However, after two years the gap between hopes and reality is grimly visible. Four of the dictatorships (in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen ) have been toppled, while one (in Syria ) is still battling for survival in a murderous civil war. Other regimes (Bahrain, Jordan ) are, for the moment, holding back the tidal wave.

Although free elections were held for the first time in Egypt and Tunisia, it is highly doubtful whether they will be held under similar circumstances next time. Nor can one ignore the instability, economic crises and disturbing rise of Islamic movements - all of which place a huge question mark over the hopes for dramatic changes in the Arab world.

As far as Israel is concerned, it will now be harder to attempt to reach peace agreements with Islamic regimes that derive their support from local public opinion (which is largely extremely hostile toward Israel ).

On January 31, 2011, a month and a half after the outbreak of disturbances in Tunisia, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was already calculating how many days would remain until his own regime would come to an end. On the same day, in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Netanyahu stated that Israel was an island of stability in the Middle East.

The prime minister also expressed fears that a radical Islamic regime would arise in Egypt. In a situation of rapid upheaval where democratic institutions are not in place yet, he warned, such a tyrannical regime would likely trample human rights, strongly oppose any manifestations of democracy and constitute a serious threat to peace in the Middle East. Ten days after Netanyahu issued his first dire warning, Mubarak resigned, succumbing to the pressure of the masses. The Americans and the Europeans welcomed this development and declared that a major step had been made toward democracy in Egypt.

But one-quarter of the votes in last June's Egyptian election went to Salafist (extremely rigid Muslim ) parties, and President Mohammed Morsi's recent actions are not so far from what Netanyahu predicted.

With his conservative, pessimistic views, the prime minister was also, however, expressing the views of Israeli voters. Here, the outcome of elections usually reflects the degree to which voters feel personally safe and secure; indeed, this factor outweighs any other consideration when people cast their ballot.

In general, Netanyahu has displayed a relative measure of caution regarding military initiatives. Only once has he deviated from that line of inaction: last month, when after considerable hesitation and finding himself in a serious political crisis, he launched Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza.

Both the prime minister's cautiousness and basic suspicions concerning the intentions of the Arab side find favor in the hearts of the Israeli electorate. Public opinion polls indicate a consistent level of support for the Likud party and its platform. What is helping the rightist-ultra-Orthodox political camp gather electoral strength is not just demography, but also an opinion that is increasingly taking hold in the public: that there is no reason to take any chances (or make big changes ) when volcanoes are erupting all around you.

In one area, however, Netanyahu should deviate from his basic approach. He should make certain gestures toward the Palestinian Authority, in order to renew negotiations with it. A more conciliatory line of conduct vis-a-vis the PA in the West Bank would help Israel's international image. It would also help enhance the moral support Israel received when it launched Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas. (Unlike his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, Netanyahu was careful to keep the number of civilian casualties among Gaza's residents to the minimum. )

Netanyahu is not, however, showing any real caution in his dealings with the PA. In fact, he has undertaken harsh punitive steps in response to its successful bid to become a nonmember observer at the United Nations. In taking these steps, Netanyahu may have increased his support among rightist voters, but he's running the risk of a growing rift with the West.

New players emerging

An argument that has often been voiced is that Israel has benefited from the fact that its attempts over time to reach a peace agreement with Syria ultimately failed. Otherwise, Israel would have found itself in an untenable position now if the Golan Heights were under the control of such a murderous neighbor.

Regarding the civil war in Syria, Israeli policy continues to be one of minimal involvement, with the understanding that extension of a helping hand to the rebels would only cause damage. It would label the rebels as Israeli agents and help the regime to survive.

Like the Egyptian border in Sinai, the Syrian border reflects the change that has taken place in Israel's strategic situation in the region. Instead of a stable balance of deterrence in the face of the armies of the neighboring states - a deterrence that rests on the Israel Defense Forces' superiority in the air, in technology and military intelligence - new players have emerged which are not even states.

These organizations sometimes form alliances to create tenuous terrorist networks, some of which have ideologies derived from those of Osama bin Laden. Moreover, they are utilizing areas that are not effectively under the control of the central regimes (such as in Sinai and southern Syria ) to consolidate their hold and gradually aim their weaponry at Israel. Although their capabilities are limited, they can still inflict considerable damage. Most important, it is very difficult to develop an effective deterrent power against them.

On the other hand, Israel has certain advantages in the new situation that has been created during the Arab awakening, although its leaders tend to avoid talking about them out loud. The conventional threat posed by the Syrian army and the potential of a similar threat from the Egyptian army (should there be a serious escalation in tensions between Jerusalem and Cairo ) have almost completely vanished.

For 35 years this was the trauma that became a formative factor in the thinking of Israel's defense establishment: Syrians right on Israel's border - on Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights - attacking with the same kind of suddenness experienced during 1973's Yom Kippur War, and with Egyptian divisions simultaneously crossing the Suez Canal and entering Sinai.

This scenario will not take place under the present circumstances, and will probably not occur in at least the next few years. Syrian President Bashar Assad's army, which over the past two years has been massacring the country's citizens, suffers from poor organization, low morale and increasing incidents of desertion. It is not an army that can be ordered, in one fell swoop, to mount an attack on the Golan Heights.

An interesting development is also unfolding in Egypt. Hamas deliberately escalated its confrontation with Israel on the eve of Operation Pillar of Defense, with the assumption that it would be supported by the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Cairo. However, that support was not forthcoming. Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood leader, Khairat al-Shater, even warned that his country would not allow Hamas to drag it into a war with Israel. Not only does Egypt have no vested interest in a war with Israel right now; the Egyptian leadership knows the price of such a move would be a cessation of American economic and military aid, upon which Egypt is completely dependent.

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi demonstrating against the delay of the 2012 Egyptian presidential results.Credit: Reuters
A UN guard on Israel's border with Syria.Credit: AP

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