Steering Clear Of History, For Now
Wed, 06/01/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Crossed out in Cairo: Egyptians in Tahrir Square as they called for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. getty images
Crossed out in Cairo: Egyptians in Tahrir Square as they called for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. getty images

In the wake of the Arab Spring and winter sweeping the Arab world, Israel would be wise to keep its hopes and fears under control. There’s a great deal about these popular uprisings and those yet to come we obviously don’t know. With the devolution of authority comes confusion and the devolution of information as new players and old ones reconfigured step on the stage. It would be smart and prudent not to draw too many hasty conclusions.

Most likely, based on what we know now, these changing seasons in the Arab world will not produce the worst-case scenarios many Israelis fear — an end to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty or the takeover by a radical Muslim regime in Cairo, Amman or the Gulf.

But it doesn’t take a worst-caser to sense the period ahead is going to be a bumpy one for Israel and the United States. Israel’s traditional Arab friends and adversaries — Mubarak, King Hussein and Bashar Assad — are gone or under pressure. As these political systems open up (and they will) public and elite opinion will demand more political space and accountability from their governments. This will invariably produce harsh criticism of Israeli policies from settlements to Gaza, to the peace process, perhaps without the autocrats’ hands to maintain the balance. Indeed, the autocrats often acquiesced in Israeli and American policies; the democrats and Islamists may not.

And if secular reform goes badly new opportunities will open up for Islamists inside these countries and perhaps for Iran outside looking in. Space will also contract in the Arab world for the United States, whose devil’s bargain with autocratic regimes has come undone or may yet unravel. Traditional acquiescence and support for policies from containment to Iran to counter-terrorism can no longer be taken for granted. And a weakened America is no small matter for Israel. On balance, without prophesying gloom and doom, an honest man or woman might be inclined to see much of what’s happening as a glass half full for the Arabs, but perhaps a glass half empty for Israel.

Still, there’s good news, too. The transformative changes loosed in the Arab world weren’t about Israel or America; what struck many observers was the absence of external reference points — turmoil and change largely without colonialists or Zionists. Anti-Israeli as a sentiment rallying point hasn’t disappeared to be sure. But the Arab Spring (Egypt, Tunisia) and the Arab winter (Libya, Bahrain, Yemen) is about an Arab search for political freedom and economic justice, a reckoning with their leaders. So too while Islamists may yet benefit from the tumult, ideologues or radicals, secularists or Islamists did not lead these movements. In fact in Tunisia and Egypt, changes will most likely occur within the amended parameters of traditional institutions not de novo in the creation of some new ideological revolutionary movement.

Nor will the Arabs, now increasingly owning their future, be fooled again by some chimerical quest to liberate Palestine. Frankly, the focus in the near term will be on elections, economics, constitutions and revolutions yet to come. No leader in the Arab world now has the authority or charisma to lead such a campaign or war or peace toward Israel. The focus will be on internal matters. These new governments and leaders now elected will have their hands full simply running things, let alone meeting rising economic and political expectations. In the case of Egypt, the military is dependent on $1.3 billion in military aid from the United States and, determined to preserve its honor and corporate identity, will not want to jeopardize Egypt’s treaty obligations with Israel.

Still, with autocrats falling left and right, Israel’s position in the Arab world may well grow politically more precarious. Democracy, or at least a political system that is more open to diverse voices, won’t be a friendly place for Israel. It wasn’t that Mubarak’s Egypt was all that friendly to begin with. But Mubarak acquiesced in many things, including routine meetings with Israeli prime ministers, hosting events at Cairo and Sharm el-Sheikh, and being moderately supportive of Israel’s policies on Gaza and Hamas.

That’s likely to change. With a more assertive parliament, a vocal presidency and a public, who by definition doesn’t warm to Israeli policies on settlements or Hamas, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship will get rocky. The Muslim Brotherhood, now informally cooperating with the military in an effort to edge out modern, liberal, democratizing parties, is too smart to take on the Egypt-Israeli relationship frontally. But the Brotherhood plays the long game, and they will exploit the popular animus toward Israel, no serious Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Israel’s own actions to keep tensions alive. A cold peace is bound to get colder.

As for the impact of the Arab Spring/winter on the peace process, well let’s just say it was in trouble well before Mubarak packed up for Sharm. Gaps in the big issues, mistrust, divisions in Israeli and Palestinian politics had all raised the odds against a breakthrough. I’ve written elsewhere that 2011 may well be the year of the bad initiative — more peace process than peace as the Israelis, Americans and Palestinians all seek out initiatives designed to preempt pressure from themselves and place it on others.

The uncertainties stirred up by uprisings in the Arab world won’t help matters either. The Arabs will be preoccupied, Abbas has lost a strong partner in Mubarak, and depending on how events play out as protests intensify in Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah may have to do some recalculating as well. Hamas’ untenable situation in Syria as the Assad’s kill their own people with impunity has already pushed them into a tentative unity with Abbas, further complicating chances for negotiations with Israel. Whether Palestinians, watching events in the Arab world, will grow increasingly frustrated and seek to marshal people power against their own authority or Israel, is right now an open question. The mid-May escalation orchestrated by Syria of Palestinians pressing against the fences on the Golan Heights is a worrisome indication.

Still, the prospects of the Netanyahu government coming out with a bold initiative to break the impasse with the Palestinians, in response, based on everything we know, strains credibility to the breaking point.

That leaves the Americans, and for the moment they really do have their hands full. President Obama would very much like to do something big on the Palestinian issue. His speech last month on June 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps and his chilly meeting with Netanyahu lacked a real context for success or a credible strategy to promote negotiations now. Worried about the Palestinian statehood initiative at the United Nations in the fall, the administration will look for ways to provide an alternative in the months ahead.

2011 began as a turbulent year in the Middle East; it’s likely to end that way too. For Israel, there are likely to be more risks perhaps than opportunities. But there are still too many uncertainties to come to definite conclusions on much of anything. The Israelis should try to avoid actions that make them the focus of the Arab story, until they have a clearer picture of where matters are heading, though their own worst instincts on settlements and escalating tensions with Hamas may keep the pot boiling. If they’re lucky, this year won’t involve or force decisions for war or peace. Because for the Palestinians and Israelis that would require decisions on Jerusalem and borders that neither is willing or able to take.

Of the three options famously described — Armageddon, business as usual, or muddle through — the last seems the most likely for now. Sometimes if you’re not ready to make history, getting out of its way for a while (if you can) makes the most sense. For Israel, this may be one of those times.

Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.