After Arab Spring, Israel’s Season of Insecurity

May 23, 2011 2:56pm

President Obama’s Sunday speech to AIPAC cited America’s “ironclad” support for Israel's security and left a consensus that the U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship is in fine form. It comes at a moment when Israel feels more vulnerable than it has for decades. Of five experts plus an Israeli military spokeswoman, all of them see Israel as fundamentally less secure than it was one year ago. And the U.S. may not have the insight or influence in the Middle East to counter a wall of threats. "This is the worst strategic environment for Israel since the end of the cold war,” said Dr. Jonathan Rynhold at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. ‘There's a failure in the U.S. to understand that.’ Israel is stuck in the political sandstorm of the Arab Spring with high uncertainty, low forward visibility, and a hustling to adapt to hostile conditions. The Israeli Defense Force Spokeswoman Avital Leibovich sees regional changes that have accelerated and sharpened two prongs of Israel’s security concern: Iran’s rising influence and increased radicalization of Arab politics.   "Israel is facing a journey of delegitimization…coming at us with greater strength than in the past," said Leibovich."We're seeing an intensifying of violence in very provocative manners that weren’t there last year." What’s changed? Egypt. The cornerstone ally of Israeli security is heading into an unknown political future and while some of its military rulers are longtime Israeli allies, they’re beholden to emboldened voices. The Muslim Brotherhood, for one, wants the 1978 peace treaty put up for a parliamentary vote. The stalwart Hosni Mubarak has been replaced by a call-and-response between the state and the street that is pushing policy against Israeli interests, from a change in trade relations to more space for Iran to expand its hand along the southern front. For decades Mubarak’s regime never naturalized the notion that Egypt and Israel were friends. The idea didn’t trickle down to high school textbooks, didn’t change the fight songs or redirect anti-Zionist anger. Now, in the transition to a kind-of popular rule in Egypt, public resentment of Israel is bubbling up into policy. Other allies are shifting direction without revolution. In Turkey, the rising politics of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and the decline of military influence since 2002 has been a net negative for Israeli interests. As Turkey has moved into closer alliance with Iran-Syria-Hamas, its “long-standing strategic relationship with Israel has effectively come to an end,” said the report from this year’s Herzliya Conference on Israel’s National Security. Tommy Steiner, one of the conference heads, sees the big players in the Middle East forming a new column. As Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia embrace Morocco and Jordan with an expanded GCC, it signals an alliance of interests – Sunni monarchies protecting each other, forming the beachhead against Iran, and subtly or publicly, countering the same threats that Israel would like to see put down.   “It has some hope and some promise,” said Steiner. While Gulf countries are unlikely to publicly countenance a relationship, he says Jordan and Morocco’s diplomatic ties with Israel means there is a bridge to that bloc.  Now the whole game changes if the Israel-Palestinian impasse breaks, for good. This week’s kickoff of a new U.S. activism, even with President Obama’s thorny mention of 1967 borders, could lead to a seismic positive change. There may not be much optimism or warmth on either side, no handshake on a White House lawn. But with Palestinians looking to declare statehood, Hamas without a stable patron in Syria, and Israel working out how to respond, all sides may end up being spooked into submission. Enough movement on the Israel-Palestine track could sap the strength of regional radicals – chiefly Iran – and boost the moderate alliance. But for that to happen Israel will have to manage change domestically, making what Prime Minister Netanyahu called an “indefensible” map of Israel into one that’s politically palatable. “The entire Palestinian area has been absorbed into the way Israel approaches its security, the external envelope…the security establishment is used to the luxury of having that space,” said Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation. The ability to wean itself off that arrangement, the debate over whether it can, is key to getting Israel out of the greater firing line of regional threats, Levy says.   He also points out that the biggest threats to Israel no longer come from the next hilltop. On the ground, it comes from a matrix of asymmetric action – the lobbed missile from Gaza or attack planned from within, but also the protest riot hitting the Golan or Lebanese border. And increasingly in the Israeli calculus, the concern that Palestinian civil disobedience could bring the Arab Spring home.  As for managing what comes next of the Arab Spring regime change, there’s the worry neighboring Syria. The potential crack or fall of the Assad regime is both a moment of opportunity and ill-defined danger. “There is no consensus on what happens the day after,” said Tommy Steiner. At least within the official ranks they have vowed to be silent…but if something happens in Syria like it happened in Egypt, I would expect to see in Syria, too, an increasing role for radical Islamic movements.” Analyst Jonathan Rynhold sees more of a message in that silence. “There's no great call to save Assad or to broker a deal. The feeling is he's brought it on himself.” In the troubling novelty of today’s threats, the ways America has traditionally helped Israel may not be as effective. Big picture pieces like arms sales and maintaining a Qualitative Military Edge don’t get at the subtle, surging threats of a popular uprising. As America’s power projection in the Middle East wanes, and U.S. allies at least perceive that Washington cut Mubarak loose, there’s a deep discomfort that stretches from Tel Aviv to Riyadh. “The concern is less is America giving us the right weapons, but more how America has underwritten the balance of power in the region,” said Rhynhold. “One key concern being voiced here is a worry that Israel can't trust America to defend its interests.” In the mood as Steiner reads it, “We’re on our own.” And it’s going to take more creativity, intelligence, and subtle action to weather the coming storms. MORE LINKS: Research & Publications from IDC Herzliya/Institute for Policy and Strategy | Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies Congressional Research Service: US Foreign Aid to Israel | US Security Assistance to the Palestinian Authority   Opinion in Haaretz: The Israeli Reality that Obama Doesn’t Understand | Jerusalem Post: At Odds with Washington | Al Jazeera: The Third Intifada: Inevitable, Not Imminent  

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