by Ehud Eiran
Alongside the risks to Israel, the Arab Spring also offers it opportunities. These include opportunities to advance its strategic objectives as they are defined in “realist” terms of power. But Israel may also be able to advance goals that draw on a “normative” set of preferences, assuming that its objectives include not simply maximizing power but also the conclusion of peace agreements with its neighbors, an end to control over all, or most of, the territories it occupied in 1967, and the strengthening of Israel’s liberal-democratic foundations.
First, the Arab Spring holds significant risks for Israel. However, my intention here is not to offer an assessment paper. The paper does not, for example, make claims regarding the probabilities of different events occurring, nor does it provide counter-arguments to the opportunities it flags. Rather, the paper’s main purpose is to identify potential opportunities and encourage a public discussion about them.
Second, the dual lens offered here of both power-based and normative opportunities reflects the deep divisions in Israel over the state’s strategic goals and, in turn, over its identity.
Third, the following attempt to identify opportunities for Israel is made at a time of extreme uncertainty and will require adjustment in light of changing circumstances. This uncertainty is further compounded, as almost all opportunities and a number of the risks are dependent on the actions of Israel itself.
Finally, although this has been a regional wave, the events also serve as a reminder that the Arab world is not homogeneous. A more refined analysis should include greater attention to the individual identities of each Arab state.
Opportunities for Israel: a “Realist” Perspective
Realism — the belief that a state’s interests are defined in terms of power — is perhaps the dominant approach in Israeli discourse and action in the realm of foreign and security policy. While the Arab Spring brings with it obvious risks to Israeli power, the events in the Arab world are also a testament to Israel’s (relative) preponderance in power, and indeed to the possibility that the gap (in Israel’s favor) may further widen. The current instability is yet another display of the difficulties that have bedeviled Arab nation-states since their founding, and in particular their inability to provide effective answers to their internal socioeconomic problems. In turn, this explains the inability of the Arab system to translate its ideological opposition to the Zionist project into effective military, economic and political action.
Moreover, events are already weakening some of the regional players who are at the forefront of regional opposition to Israel. The Syrian regime that held a strict rejectionist stance against Israel and played a crucial role in the “resistance” (Mukawama) is under severe pressure and may not survive. Iran, another avid foe of Israel, may face internal, ideological and powerprojection challenges. Internally, the Iranian regime is likely to again face problems of instability if the anti-authoritarian wave returns to its shores. The events of June 2009 and the demonstrations in early spring this year were another reminder of popular opposition to the mullahs, whose regime is already weakened by internal rifts. Ideologically, the rise of Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco has not led, for now, to an alliance with Iran. As the past hostile relationship between the Taliban and Teheran proved, Islamists do not necessarily align easily. Egyptian and North African parties are separated from Iran, to some extent, not only by virtue of the Sunni-Shiite divide, but also by virtue of the power-sharing arrangements with the monarchy in Morocco and the army in Egypt, which do not follow, at least for now, the more authoritarian model offered by Teheran.
The Iranian regime’s power projection ability, in our immediate environment, is likely to weaken given the crisis the Syrian regime — Iran’s key political ally in promoting its interests near us — is facing. Additionally, in terms of “soft power,” Iran is vulnerable to attack on its image and interests because of opposition to authoritarian regimes in the region — the Iranian regime being one of them — but also because of its alliance with Syria, whose regime has been harshest thus far in its handling of the challenges of the Arab Spring. A June 2011 survey of six Arab states carried out by James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, found a dramatic fall in Iran’s popularity compared to findings in surveys carried out before the Arab Spring.1 Hence, the “resistance” camp, including its most active players, Hamas and more specifically Hizbullah, could be weakened, while moderate Arab regimes such as Morocco and Jordan have so far managed to curtail internal threats to their stability.
Israel’s alliances may also benefit from the new regional realities. Despite the tension between their leaderships, there is potential for strengthening of the Israeli-American alliance if Washington places greater importance on Israel’s strategic value in light of the loss of its Arab allies (in particular, Egypt’s ousted President Hosni Mubarak), and the Arab Spring’s reminder that its Arab allies have inherent weaknesses. Other Western powers may also adopt this stand. Israel could also transform the concern it shares with Turkey over the future of Syria (and renewed Turkish- Iranian tensions over Turkey’s Syria policy), to mend at least portions of its shattered alliance with Ankara.
Finally, the threat to Arab regimes, including the need to direct resources to internal needs, could propel some of them to seek closer relations with Israel. Israel’s relations with states in the region such as Jordan and Morocco were driven, in part, by the former’s desire to buttress their rule in times of internal challenge. The rather desperate visit of senior Libyan officials to Israel, and media reports that Libyan dictator Gaddafi had suggested establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, are a case in point.2
Opportunities for Israel: a “Normative” Perspective
The “realist” analysis hones in on elements of power and is indifferent to the question of what Israel does with the power it holds. But assuming Israel’s objectives also include a normative vision of external peace (and an end to the occupation) as well as internal liberal democracy, the Arab Spring holds even further promise. There are opportunities in the inter-state arena, opportunities to influence public opinion in Israel and Arab states.
In the inter-state arena, as already stated, there is new incentive — albeit with inherent tensions — for some Arab states to draw closer to Israel if they believe that such an association could contribute to the stability of their regimes. On the one hand, as a generalization, public association with Israel could damage the legitimacy of these regimes at home. On the other hand, Arab leaders could construe such relations as being the means to obtain the material rewards needed to stabilize their regimes.
There are also conditions that may be conducive — should Israel choose to act — to the resumption of a meaningful peace process. These conditions include the general weakness of the Arab countries, their need to divert resources to internal challenges, their dependence on foreign assistance, the potential strengthening of the alliance between Israel and the United States, and the possible weakening of the “resistance” camp. In addition, the Arab Spring could create an incentive for Israel to stabilize its relations with players in the region, and to strive toward written agreements with them. For example, Hamas while suffering from the reduced glory of “resistance” in the region, could also get stronger with a more sympathetic regime in Cairo, partial removal of the physical isolation of Gaza, and ease of access to the arsenals of crumbling regimes. This could encourage Israel to stabilize relations with Gaza, perhaps according to the ceasefire formula used with the Palestine Liberation Operation in the early 1980s or the ceasefire prior to “Operation Cast Lead” in the winter of 2008-09.
In the internal Israeli space, the Arab Spring offers several possibilities to reframe issues that impose difficulties on the peace camp at home. First, socioeconomic weaknesses and political crises in Arab countries create an opportunity to remind the Israeli public of Israel’s dominance (in terms of power) in the region. This situation is well understood among sectors of the bureaucratic elite, but has not filtered through to the public, which still sees Israel as being in an inferior position in terms of security, and thus is reluctant to make territorial compromises.
Secondly, the Arab Spring offers an opportunity to change the image of the region and its inhabitants in the eyes of the Jewish-Israeli public. The lack of support for the peace process (which in any event is understood as separation from the region and not as connection to it), is also related to the image that Israel has of itself as being a “villa in the jungle” surrounded by a culturally weaker population that is politically passive and materially poor. However, the image arising from the Arab Spring offers an opening for Jewish Israelis to see their neighbors in a different light. There is indeed an opening for a reassessment of the Arab societies around us and of their internal strength: from an image of a passive, backwards mass to an image of personal bravery, dynamism and effective use of advanced technologies. Slogans seen in Israel during this summer’s demonstrations such as “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu” signal that even if only at the most superficial level, the Arab world can be seen as a source for imitation. There was a similar change in the perception of the Arab world following the 1973 war, which wiped out the less than flattering image created by the 1967 Arab defeat, and helped the Israeli public support the peace process with Egypt in the late 70s.
Thirdly, the Arab Spring provided a few reminders that Israel is part of the Middle East — e.g., highlighting the dangers of instability in the region (refugee marches), but also pointing out lessons that could be learned from the protests in the Arab world. Such reminders could strengthen incentives to be more open to the region, or at least to better understand it. Finally, if indeed this summer’s awakening of civil society in Israel was influenced by the courage and achievements of Arab civil society, the Arab Spring strengthens democracy in Israel at the moment it is faced with tough challenges.
Equally, the Arab Spring creates long-term potential for positively influencing Israel’s image in the eyes of the Arab public in the neighboring countries. This, in spite of the fact that it seems that for now Israel is seen as part of the repressive systems from which the peoples of the region are attempting to free themselves. However, if the political changes in the area lead to regimes that are more representative of their people, future arrangements with Israel (and perhaps even for existing arrangements with Egypt and Jordan) will be more stable, given the regimes’ wider base of legitimacy. Moreover, the shifts in Arab societies demonstrate their readiness to challenge the most basic conventions, including the legitimacy of their rulers. Although there are no signs of it yet, this willingness to test basic conventions could spread to open discussion on the question of Israel. Furthermore, the centrality of social media in the Arab Spring creates a new accessible space for interaction between Israelis and Arabs in neighboring countries, which might promote re-evaluation of the “Zionist entity.”
The Arab world is undergoing another wave of government instability. Currently, at the core of the instability is the overthrow of the military revolutionary governments that were formed between the 1950s and the 197 0s. Their great promise for social change turned into corrupt G’umlocih, to use the Arabic term which derives from the combination of “republic” and “royalty.” Although present uncertainty does pose potential risks to Israel, there are also opportunities both for power-based “realists” and normative-based “liberal peaceniks.” However, taking advantage of these opportunities is dependent not only on developments in the area, but also on the way in which Israel acts. The Zionist project succeeded in achieving its goals, although it unfolded during one of the most tumultuous centuries in human history. It took leaders who were both pragmatists and visionaries, who saw opportunity even in crisis. Now, with a new crisis around us, let us hope that our current leaders will follow suit.
1 Arab American Institute, Iran’s Free Fall, Aug. 1, 2011. See: http://www.aaiusa.org/dr-zogby/entry/ irans-freefall/
2 Saed Bannoura, Qaddafi Representatives Visit Israel, July 11, 2011. See: http://www.imemc. org/article/61650