Up Front

Israel Looks at the Arab Awakening with Skepticism

Daniel L. Byman

When Israelis look at the Arab awakening, they compare it to Tehran in 1979, not Prague in 1989. Such sentiments seemed churlish as Arab dictators fell, but now—with the military clinging to power in Egypt, Libya failing to form a strong government, and Syria descending into civil war—Israelis feel vindicated in their pessimism.

The new regimes, the chaotic regional situation, and the Israeli reactions to them, have the potential to complicate the U.S.–Israel relationship further, making it harder for the United States to benefit from the Arab awakening. In the end, however, it is in Israel’s interest, as well as Washington’s, that the regional transformation is peaceful. It is Israel’s role in the Arab awakening that I explore in my chapter, “Israel: A Frosty Response to the Arab Spring” in The Arab Awakening: America and the Transformation of the Middle East.

Israelis fear that long-time allies like Egypt will end up as enemies. While the relationship with Egypt under Mubarak was far from warm and fuzzy, Mubarak was a reliable ally against terrorists and Iran. Now Mubarak has been replaced by, well, that’s the question. Israelis worry that an Islamist regime might rip up the peace treaty or, less dramatically, simply stop helping Israel contain Hamas in Gaza. In addition, they fear that any regime will be too focused on staying in power to police the Sinai and other chaotic areas where terrorists hide. 

Given Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s hostility towards Israel and ties to Iran, Israelis would be happy to see him go. But they worry that a replacement regime might be weak or hostile. Syria’s past suggests the danger of instability to Israel. Salah Jadid, the predecessor to Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez, whipped up popular sentiment against Israel, agitating on behalf of the Palestinians to the point where the situation spiraled into war in 1967—a conflict that Damascus was not prepared to fight, and one which resulted in the loss of the Golan Heights to Israel. Hafez’s son Bashar takes more risks, but he too recognizes that an open clash with Israel would be disastrous for Syria and his regime. Relations between Syria and Israel are governed by many rules, most of which are unspoken but are nevertheless quite real. Changes in Syria could bring to power a new government that does not know these subtle rules and, again, plays to popular opinion rather than strategic reality.

Even if Assad stays in power, he may feel compelled to stir up anger against Israel to divert the pressure of popular opinion. Already in May and June 2011, as unrest swept across Syria, the regime there encouraged (some reports say coerced) Palestinians to march on Israel across the Syrian border into the Golan Heights, leading to more than a dozen deaths—Syria claims far more. The weakness of the Assad government, as well as any conceivable replacement, makes peace even less likely as no government could risk the potential unpopularity of cutting a deal with Israel.

More broadly, given how strong anti-Israel sentiment is in much of the Arab world, Israelis do not trust public opinion. A 2010 University of Maryland/Zogby poll found that almost 90 percent of Arabs saw Israel as “the biggest threat to you.”[1]  “The ugly facts,” said former defense minister Moshe Arens, “are that the two peace treaties that Israel concluded so far—the one with Egypt and the other with Jordan—were both signed with dictators: Anwar Sadat and King Hussein.”[2]  In other words, Israelis fear that the Mubaraks, Husseins, and other dictators are as good as it will get for Israel because these leaders are outside the mainstream of their societies.

The United States will be caught between its commitment to Israel and its desire to gain the goodwill of the new Arab leaders and advance democratization in the region. U.S. regional interests go well beyond the security of Israel, of course, embracing issues from counterterrorism to energy security. These issues require the United States to work with Arab governments, both old and new, all the while knowing that hostility between them and Israel will make progress all the more difficult.

In the end, regional revolutions can work to Israel’s benefit. Change, however, must be managed properly. Israel must recognize the new regional dynamics, including the potential for escalation and the political realities of its neighbors and potential peace partners. Such recognition will not make the new challenges go away, but they will make Israel ready to seize opportunities for peace and less likely to engage in a dangerous escalation that could spiral into disaster.



[2]Isabel Kershner, “Egypt’s Upheaval Hardens Israel’s Stance on Peace,” New York Times, February 2, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/world/middleeast/03israel.html?scp=56&sq=Isabel+Kershner&st=nyt; accessed February 7, 2012.

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