There has been much talk in the U.S. about how the Obama administration needs to do a better job getting out in front of the democracy movements in the Middle East by formulating a coherent strategy. Sunday’s violence in the Middle East shows us that these sentiments apply to an even greater extent to Israel. After all, Israel is directly impacted by the uprisings. Look at a map. The geopolitics of Israel’s neighborhood are shifting right under Israel’s feet. Its neighbors are presently undergoing regime change (Egypt) or experiencing political unrest (Syria, and to lesser extent Lebanon). All of which only places additional pressures and insecurities on Israel. Let us briefly focus on Egypt and Syria.
Israel will no longer have the same cozy political and economic relationship with Egypt. Let us not forget that Hosni Mubarak was despised in part because of the perception that he constantly kowtowed to Israel’s (and by extension Washington’s) interests, thereby making Egypt a passive and weak player in the region. A more democratic and politically engaged Egypt will likely be increasingly assertive on foreign policy issues. In fact, the revolutionaries, government leaders, and political factions have stated that they would like to see Egypt recapture its traditional position of leadership within the region. While most actors in Egypt claim that they will respect the peace treaty, there is widespread consensus on maintaining a much more independent position vis-a-vis Israel.
Already, Egyptian officials helped to seal a reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, and they are now working both sides to implement it. Moreover, Egyptian citizens have been very vocal in expressing their pro-Palestinian views. Even during the revolution, the crowd in Tahrir was not shy about voicing their thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And over the weekend, in a show of support for the Palestinians, who were commemorating the so-called Nakba Day (essentially, a day of sadness for Israel’s independence, the plight of Palestinians), hundreds of Egyptians attempted to close in on the Rafah border crossing, but were stopped by the military. And there have been several protests at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, including one on Sunday that triggered a violent crackdown. Lastly, news about lower than market gas deals under Mubarak to Israel has surfaced. Egyptian officials have promised to review these deals and possibly request Israel to pay a higher price. As expected, Israel is already finding these changes both frustrating and annoying.
Syria is a different story, with its own set of complexities. On the one hand, it appears obvious that President Bashar al-Assad took advantage of the weekend’s mood in the region to deflect the attention away from his own internal rebellion. He authorized and likely instigated the movement of pro-Palestinian groups to the border with Israel, knowing full well that a confrontation and trouble would occur and that those things would dominate the headlines. And that precisely is what happened. In the meantime, unfortunately, Assad gained a free hand, out of the world's eye, to ramp up his systematic attempts to hound, intimidate, arrest, imprison, torture, and even kill Syrian citizens who dared to call for a better government.
And keep in mind, and this goes for all the region’s dictators, defending the Palestinians (and criticizing Israel) is generally good domestic politics. It is the one major issue that Middle Eastern governments can consistently count on to generate and sustain public support. And so by using violence against people gathered at the border, even if they were troublemakers with malign intentions, Israel plays right into Assad’s hands. He can now easily and effectively pull out the Palestine/Israel card as a means to bolster his somewhat shaky position in power.
On the other hand, and this at first might sound very strange, Israel does not want Assad to leave power. The strongest pro-Syria advocate in the U.S. is Israel, which wants Washington to continue with its policy of engagement. Why? Although Israel and Syria are not on good terms, there has not been a direct, hot war between both countries for decades. Fearing the worst once Assad is gone, Israel believes, Syria will be even much more openly hostile toward it. And escalating tensions raises all sorts of national security risks and dangers.
As should be obvious, a complete set of recommendations is beyond the scope of this blog post. But I do have three points that Israel should consider.
1. Israel should not maintain support the old regional status quo. To the Arabs, this means that Israel is in favor of authoritarianism, police states, repression, torture, and so on, in their countries. This is not the side to join. Israel should fully embrace and encourage freedom in the region, for several reasons.
One, it is the right thing to do.
Two, why would Israelis want to give the Palestinians another reason to stir up anger and resentment against them?
Three, the idea that a more democratic Egypt or Syria makes for a more dangerous environment for Israel is pretty suspect. A democratizing Egypt will make life more difficult for Israel, but that is probably it. There are too many moderating forces to prevent Egypt from lurching in a radicalized direction, one of which includes the enormous aid package from the U.S. And as for Syria, really, the relationship cannot get much worse. The truth is that Syria poses an indirect existential threat to Israel. Syria, along with Iran, provides significant support to Hamas and Hezbollah, two groups that have been in direct military conflict with Israel for years. It strains credulity to think that a democratic Syria will threaten, harass, and inflict more damage on Israel than it already does.
2. There is quite a bit of chatter among bloggers that pro-Palestinian groups will likely import many of the successful tactics employed by the revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia. In particular, as a way of effecting policy changes in the Netanyahu government, we might see the rise of large-scale peaceful protests on Israel’s doorstep. If this is true, Israel will need to figure out a way to protect its interests while dealing civilly with the protesters. In such cases, using force only inflames and agitates the Palestinians, exacerbates the conflict, and puts Israel in a morally indefensible position.
Furthermore, Israel must revise how it deals with aggressors armed only with rocks and sticks, which is what its military faced on Sunday. Clearly, Israel can handle these situations without resorting to force. And using force in these cases is a disproportionate response. It probably violates international law, puts Israel in a morally untenable position, and in the end reinforces the existing perception in the region that its leaders are trigger-happy and vengeful. Is this the image that liberal, democratic Israel wants to project to the rest of the world?
3. Since Israel defines Hamas as a terrorist organization, it is understandable that Israel does not want to make any deals with a unity government filled with Hamas members or sympathizers. And it is Israel’s sovereign right to make that decision. But Israel will have to be prepared for the consequences. And here, I am not just referring to the usual round of violence, protests, and heated rhetoric that accompanies the longstanding conflict. Rather, if substantial progress toward political agreement is not made soon, the Palestinians plan to press the issue at the United Nations this fall. Specifically, what they want, and are likely to get, is worldwide recognition of statehood. Should this happen, how will Israel respond?