Springtime for the Israeli Right as Well

The fears unleashed by the Arab Spring have brought Benjamin Netanyahu closer than ever to perpetuating both ideology and rule.

Israel's reaction to the upheavals of the Arab Spring was a panic attack whose symptoms became increasingly aggravated as the Facebook and Twitter demonstrations in the Arab states morphed into violent civil wars and strengthened Islamist movements. Israel's long-repressed fears that the fall of Hosni Mubarak would usher in the Muslim Brotherhood in his place and that Egypt would become a new Iran - or, as the least of evils, an Erdogan-style Turkey - are being realized and concern is mounting.

Israel's apprehension does not merely reflect an instinctive recoil from political Islam: It also relates to the regional balance of power. Israel's strategic situation has worsened in the past year. The regional alliances with Turkey and Egypt have collapsed. Furthermore, it is not clear how much longer Jordan's Hashemite kingdom will exist; in the meantime, it too is keeping its distance from Israel. The United States, weakened under the rickety leadership of Barack Obama, no longer calls the shots in the Middle East. Greece, Israel's new ally, is falling apart due to an economic crisis. Iran is ignoring the threats and sanctions, and pursuing its race to nuclear capability. The Palestinian Authority is drawing closer to Hamas.

Benjamin Netanyahu - Emil Salman
Emil Salman

A few patches of light punctuate this dark picture. The Assad regime in Syria is in a tailspin, with Hezbollah weakened in its wake. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wanted the United Nations to recognize Palestine, but Israel scuttled his initiative. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which, like Israel, are fond of the old regional order and are fearful of the regime changes and Iran's growing might, are quietly cooperating with Israel on matters of common concern.

But all this is poor consolation. In the face of a tightening ring of isolation, Israel has reacted like the frightened class bully, baring its teeth and threatening war. It played up a ballistic-missile test and long-range attack exercises, creating the impression that it was on the verge of blowing up the nuclear facilities in Iran. The message to neighbors and the international community: "Israel is still relevant and can make trouble."

The regional unrest this year worried most Israelis, but there was one who leveraged the fear into an unprecedented political opportunity. From the advent of the Arab Spring, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understood that the fall of Mubarak put an end to the doctrine of "land for peace." From the perspective of Netanyahu and his right-wing colleagues, it had now been proved beyond a doubt that there is no one to talk to and nothing to talk about, and that any territory Israel evacuates will ultimately become a base for terror attacks against it - as is happening now in Sinai. Overnight, the Israeli left lost the ideology underlying its proposed resolution of the conflict with the Arabs, which it had preached for years. That merchandise has no buyers now.

In a statement before the Knesset on November 23, Netanyahu boasted about the confirmation of his assessment that instead of liberal democracy, the Arab states would be inundated by an "Islamist wave." I was right, he declared, patting himself on the back, when I urged caution in the talks with the Palestinians and not rushing to make concessions.

Nor did he confine himself to mere commentary. Emboldened by the weakening of his rival, Barack Obama, Netanyahu accelerated building in the settlements and stepped up land seizures around Jerusalem.

Another small effort, another two or three years in power, and the dream of the right will be fulfilled: Enough Jews will be settled along the West Bank's mountain ridge to thwart for all time the idea of two states for two peoples.

From the West Bank, Netanyahu moved in recent months into Israel proper, launching a campaign to suppress political, judicial and media rivals. He freed Gilad Shalit in a deal with Hamas, which restored the support of the center for him, and positioned him as a popular leader without serious competitors. Encouraged by his rise in the polls, the premier took steps to advance the next general election, so as to win another term before the recession deepens and his rivals have the chance to reorganize, and to neutralize American intervention in the Israeli elections if Obama surprises by winning a second term.

The fears unleashed by the Arab Spring have brought Netanyahu closer than ever to perpetuating his rule and to crushing Israel's "old elites." In the Arab states, the blossoms of spring withered quickly. In the Prime Minister's Bureau in Jerusalem, and in the meeting rooms of the right-wing factions in the Knesset, his allies are blooming in vivid colors of self-satisfaction, and in expectation of an overwhelming ideological and political victory over the left.