Israel’s Pessimistic View of the Arab Spring

Americans took heart as they watched Egyptian demonstrators rally in Tahrir Square and topple the regime of Hosni Mubarak in a peaceful revolution. Next door in Israel, however, the mood was somber: “When some people in the West see what’s happening in Egypt, they see Europe 1989,” an Israeli official remarked. “We see it as Tehran 1979.” Political leaders vied to see who could be the most pessimistic, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly warning that it was even possible that “Egypt will go in the direction of Iran,” with the new Cairo government becoming even more dictatorial and lashing out abroad. As he pointed out in remarks to the Knesset, “They too had demonstrations; multitudes filled the town squares. But, of course it progressed in a different way.” As unrest spread from Egypt to Bahrain, Jordan, Syria, and Yemen, the gloom seemed to deepen.

These apocalyptic predictions and Israel’s doom-and-gloom mentality are easy, too easy, to dismiss. Israelis are always hyper-sensitive to their security. Indeed, their reaction to the spread of democracy so close to their borders seems churlish, as does their tendency to look on the dark side when so many of their Arab neighbors now have hopes for a better life. But dismissing Israeli concerns would be a mistake. Some of Israel’s fears are valid, and others that are less so will still drive Israeli policies. The new regimes and the chaotic regional situation pose security challenges to the Jewish state. These challenges, and the Israeli reactions to them, are likely to worsen the crisis in Gaza and make the prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians even more remote. The new revolutions also have the potential to complicate the U.S.–Israel relationship further and make it harder for the United States to benefit from the Arab Spring.

In the end, however, neither the United States nor Israel is behind the winds of change sweeping the Middle East. Egypt will have a new regime, and other Arab countries may too. Others may reform, while still others may become more reactionary, or even, as in Libya, collapse into civil war. Decrying this trend risks missing opportunities to nudge it in the right direction. It is in Israel’s interest, as well as Washington’s, that the regional transformation is peaceful and that democratization succeeds.

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