Analysis: Much to fear, much to hope with Arab Spring

As the Arab Spring changes the face of the Middle East, what will be the impact on Israel?

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, September 1, 2011
Syrian protesters burn a photo of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad

Syrian protesters burn a photo of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad

The Arab Spring represents an unprecedented crisis for the Middle East regional order. The upheavals it engendered are still under way and much hangs in the balance - but clearly, out of change, dangers as well as opportunities arise.

This is particularly true for Israel. Jerusalem has warily watched the turmoil, unable to affect it but concerned about its impact on the region's future stability.

Many liberal pundits have chastised Israel for not siding immediately with the protesters, ridiculing Israel's predilection for relations with the authoritarian regimes that until not so long ago ruled the Arab world.

Yet, these were the same pundits who chastised Israel for not having embraced the Arab Peace Initiative, the same dictators' ambiguous piece offer of 2002.

Herein lies Israel's dilemma. The regional order that the Arab Spring upset was a stable one, where Israel enjoyed a cold but solid peace with Egypt and Jordan, quiet but fruitful relations with other Arab states and where a convergence of pragmatic interests - fear of Iran - was making the Palestinian issue less of an obstacle to Israeli-Arab bilateral relations.

There were threats, to be sure. Israel still confronted an unrelenting campaign of hatred and delegitimisation across the region. Iran's proxies threatened Israel's security; nuclear proliferation was a distinct possibility; and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism undermined Israel's allies while strengthening its foes.

The outbreak of protests in Tunisia and Egypt appeared to change all that, and mostly for the worse.

While Israel's enemies appeared stable - Iran weathered its own Spring in 2009 and Syria initially remained quiet - Israel's friends were swept aside by the rising tide of protests and the embarrassed silence of their erstwhile Western allies. Despite proclamations to the contrary, both Tunisia and Egypt now appear inexorably sliding toward an Islamist takeover through free elections.

While rhetoric and practice rarely coincide in the Arab world, the mounting frenzy of Israel-hatred filling Egyptian public discourse is a cause of serious concern in Jerusalem.

Nor is there much hope that democracy will have a taming effect on such emotions.

Egypt's Spring is far from democratic - more like a cosmetic makeover by a military junta. But its leaders have found it convenient to forge an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood so they can keep their hands in the country's economic pie.

In the process, through a mixture of negligence and connivance, Egyptian control over the Sinai Peninsula has dwindled, opening the path to increased weapons smuggling for Gaza and a growing Salafi, al-Qaeda- like presence in the largely lawless terrain.

This leaves Israel in a bind -
allowing Egypt to increase its military presence in the Sinai may address the terror threat but, as Egypt's commitment to its peace treaty falters, that could constitute the basis for a future danger to Israel's security from a border that stayed quiet for over 30 years. After 1979, an Egyptian-Israeli war was unthinkable. After 2011, no longer so.

In Libya, the fall of the Gaddafi clan may have caused excitement among their erstwhile victims, but there is little for Israel to gain there - from March, Libyan weapons have found their way to Gaza at an alarmingly growing pace; and the proposition that Libya's rebels will embrace Western-style democracy is tenuous at best.

Libya, like Egypt could fall into the hands of Islamist forces - and with its oil and its past WMD programmes still fresh in the memory of its scientists, it could spell trouble.

Meanwhile, the Arabian Peninsula offers a mixed bag. While its regimes have mostly remained solidly in control, Yemen's collapse has opened the already weak state to further terrorist penetration. But US-Saudi tensions have triggered a turn in Riyadh and encouraged Saudi Arabia to take a more assertive regional role to contain Iran's expansionism.

For Israel then, the picture offers understandable cause of apprehension, since in most cases change could mean, at least in so far as Israel is concerned, 'change for the worse'.

There is, however, a silver lining. If Syria's regime falls, the ripple effects of such change are mostly positive for Jerusalem.

Despite the obtuse Western conviction, all this time, that Syria's president was a pragmatic leader who could be snatched away from the Iranian orbit in exchange for a return of Syrian sovereignty over the Golan Heights and a diplomatic and economic rapprochement with the West, no amount of engagement ever produced a change in Damascus. The regime's cruelty – unusual even for Arab standards – was finally on display as Syrians turned against their government last March. The endgame in Damascus is not clear yet – but the West has belatedly moved to condemn and sanction Bashar al Assad and his cronies.

If Assad goes, a can of worms may be opened – and not all the worms are going to eat away from Israel's apple. The Kurdish question will give sleepless nights to Ankara's new sultan – no wonder then that Turkey is trying, with America's irresponsible blessing, to prop up Syria's Muslim Brotherhood to guide the opposition, while excluding the Kurds. The rest is mostly a nightmare for Iran and its proxies. Hamas found itself in the embarrassing position of keeping quiet while Syrian tanks massacred fellow Muslim Brotherhood activists during the month of Ramadan. Hizbollah may lose its patron and, most importantly, a key transit point for weapons flowing in from Iran. If Syria falls and Hezbollah is weakened, Lebanon too may free itself from the shackles of Iranian hegemonic ambitions. With Iran downsized and its proxy Syria neutralized, Lebanon may yet find a way to confront Hizbollah and in the process regain its freedom.

Finally, and unless Turkey has it its own way with Syria's opposition, the fall of the house of Assad may empower more moderate forces in Damascus, whose hostility to Iran and its proxies has been made already abundantly apparent. This, and not an accommodation with the bloodthirsty Assad, could lead to peace with Israel and the end of Iran's presence in the Levant.

The Arab Spring is not over – for better or worse, the momentous changes it entails are still playing out. For Israel there is little to do to influence them; much to fear; and as much to hope.

Beware of false illusions though – the region's history does not offer much precedent for hope.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Last updated: 1:05pm, September 1 2011