Arab Spring, Israeli Isolation

Over 250,000 people protest in Tel Aviv in August

Over 250,000 people protest in Tel Aviv in August

With the Arab uprisings gradually reconfiguring the regional political landscape, Israel is finding itself increasingly isolated. For at least a decade, Israel has identified Iran as its main strategic nemesis, but the Arab spring has rekindled simmering tensions between Israel on one hand, and Arab states as well as Turkey on the other.

The ongoing conflict within Syria could also jeopardize the implicit modus vivendi between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Israel, paving the way for a potential conflict in the future. The whole Arab landscape has actually shifted: the Hezbollah faction is playing a central role in Lebanese politics; the Egyptian public is demanding a reassessment of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty; and the Jordanian government is facing growing domestic political pressure. Israel is grappling with a totally new emerging regional order.

Meanwhile, Iran has continued with its nuclear enrichment, meanwhile enhancing its ballistic missile capabilities. Palestine, bolstered by growing international support, is pushing for statehood, circumventing the Israeli-dictated “peace process.” Domestically, large demonstrations have shaken major Israeli cities, as people across the political and economic spectrum demand crucial economic and social reforms. There are also growing signs of splits within the Israeli bureaucracy over plans to attack Iran.

Therefore, unless the Netanyahu administration makes necessary changes in its policies, the country might emerge as the biggest loser of the Arab uprisings. This is the perfect opportunity for the Obama administration to redeem itself by pressuring Israel to make necessary compromises, re-evaluate its inhumane policies toward Gaza, and make necessary reforms before it’s too late. The clock is ticking fast.

The Collapse of the Periphery Alliance

For decades, Israel, under the so-called “periphery doctrine,” relied on its alliance with Turkey and Iran to ameliorate its isolation within the Arab Middle East. However, the 1979 revolution transformed Iran into a revisionist power that was committed to the “Palestinian cause” and the empowerment of oppressed communities across the region. As a result, Iran emerged as Israel’s key strategic threat.

The subsequent revival of Iran’s nuclear program rattled Israel, prompting hawkish figures such as Benjamin Netanyahu to characterize Tehran as an existential threat. Facing a determined, influential, and powerful country such as Iran, Israel focused its bureaucratic-military energy on Iran’s nuclear program. This has become the centerpiece of Israeli national security doctrine.

Astonishingly, the last decade also witnessed a dramatic change in the Turkish political landscape. The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) marked the beginning of a new Turkish republic. Encouraged by growing domestic political support and unprecedented economic stability, the quasi-Islamist party introduced dramatic changes to the country’s constitutional framework, political system, and, crucially, its foreign policy doctrine. In a short span of time, Turkey has transformed into the region’s primary indigenous power along with Iran, determined to shape the regional order along its unique vision and national interest.

It was precisely this critical shift in the domestic politics of Turkey – concomitant with the global shift of power from the West to the East – that laid down the foundation of a new approach toward Israel. Determined to boost its regional profile and exercise its growing influence, Turkey has emerged as one of the most powerful critics of Israeli policies toward the occupied territories. The Mavi Marmara incident, Israel’s continued violation of international law, and the inhumane siege of Gaza have provided the perfect pretext for Turkey to become a vanguard of the Palestinian cause and thereby recalibrate its relations with Israel.

The Arab uprisings have provided a unique opportunity for Turkey to cement is regional leadership, with Prime Minister Erdogan employing increasingly harsh rhetoric against “Zionist policies.” Israel’s unwillingness to compromise – from its refusal to lift the siege on Gaza to its failure to apologize for the death of Turkish citizens – has prompted Turkey to take Israel to the International Court of Justice and even risk a potential naval clash in the future.

Meanwhile, Tehran has been enhancing its military capabilities, reforming its domestic economy, enriching uranium, and closing its technological gap with the West. Undoubtedly, the Turkish-Israeli estrangement and the continued rise of Iran have placed Israel in a very tenuous strategic position.

The Arabist Revival

The Arab uprisings have been predominantly about social justice, economic reforms, and political opening. However, they are also a rejection of the Arab autocrats’ decades of servility toward Israel and the West. The Arab Spring is fundamentally about regaining “Arab dignity,” both on the individual and national levels. Therefore, we should not be surprised to see that popular demands are also directed at Arab states’ policies toward Israel and Palestine.

Given how the two major non-Arab powers, Turkey and Iran, have developed a fierce position against Israel, it is natural to expect emerging post-autocratic as well as existing Arab states to step up their efforts against Israeli policies in order to stave off growing domestic pressure. In this particular context, Egypt – the region’s biggest country – is the most crucial of all Arab states.

The 1979 peace agreement has provided Israel a tremendous amount of strategic space, a political carte blanche, to do as it pleases. However, the post-Mubarak Egypt represents a new dynamic in bilateral relations. In an attempt to appease continuing protests, the ruling military junta, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has shown considerable flexibility in its foreign policy positions. In August, border clashes, resulting in the death of five Egyptian soldiers, led to massive and unprecedented anti-Israel protests in Cairo, reflecting the new mood in the country. The incident and the ensuing popular backlash – coupled with the new political imperative for more popular foreign policies – might portend a re-assessment, if not formal abrogation, of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. This could be a nightmare for Israel.

To the north, the Assad regime is facing immense domestic political resistance. Since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, there has been an implicit modus vivendi between the two countries, although Syria continues to support anti-Israeli forces across the region. Nonetheless, the Assad-led regime provided a level of certainty and stability in the Levant region, given Damascus’ reticence about instigating another destructive conventional war with Israel’s formidable army. Nonetheless, there are three potentially negative outcomes for Israel. The Syrian regime might choose to increase its pressure on Israel to deflect domestic grievances. A post-Assad regime might emerge under a more radical leadership determined to regain lost territories in the Golan Heights. Or there might be an influx of refugees and/or territorial perforation of Israeli-Syrian border by extremist elements. At this point, Israel could only hope that the Syrian regime would take things under control and/or avoid escalation in bilateral tensions. If protests gain momentum in Jordan, Amman could follow suit by reassessing its 1994 peace treaty with Israel. At this point in time, things remain nervously uncertain.

On the other hand, Palestine’s bid for statehood represents a turning point. Determined to refurbish its image and gain popular support, the embattled leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has discovered a window of opportunity to embarrass the hawkish Israeli administration by revealing the paucity of the Israeli-imposed peace process. After all, Palestine’s bid enjoys significant international support, presenting a chance to discredit and delegitimize Israeli policies toward the occupied territories. The bid could also not only inspire more protests and mobilization on the part of Palestinians and other Arabs, it may serve as a platform around which Arab states could form a symbolic-political coalition against Israel.

Growing Domestic Pressure

The Arab Spring has become a global phenomenon as popular protests – from Europe to the United States – have arrived in Tel Aviv and other major Israeli cities. In recent months, massive demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of Israelis have transformed the country’s urban scenery: thousands of citizens have turned public parks and streets into temporary camps and shelters. In essence, the demonstrations are a response to deeply rooted fissures and social maladies within the Israeli society. There is a growing gap between the rich and the poor with the exponential increase in real estate prices and growing economic hardship due to the high cost of living. At a social level, tensions have arisen between the privileged and influential orthodox groups and more liberal-moderate sections of Israeli society, and the marginalization and exclusion of Arab minorities has increased.

In this sense, the demonstrations reflect a broad range of interests, values, and visions from all major sections of the Israeli society. But, at the same time, one should not be surprised by their largely liberal and middle-class character. After all, Israeli politics suffers from an acute systemic electoral defect. Many small and radical political parties gain seats in the parliament because of the country’s low electoral threshold, which awards seats to marginal groups who make even modest electoral gains. Owing to the remarkable heterogeneity of the Knesset, these minority groups tend to gain a virtual “veto” power within fragile coalition governments. As a result, the more moderate sentiment of the public is not reflected in the eventual ruling coalition.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish posturing pales in comparison with that of a minority coalition partner, the Beiteinu Party, led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. This explains the huge gap between state policies and broader popular sentiments, which has widened in recent years. This political phenomenon has had a huge effect on social as well as economic aspects of Israeli society.

Minority groups have been able to influence the state’s social policies as well as its foreign policy and settlement expansion. They have facilitated the creation of special subdivisions for Orthodox Jews. They have liberalized the economy in favor of a small economic elite, among a whole host of other policies that have undermined the interests of the middle class and the “moderate” majority. Therefore, the protests could eventually evolve to include crucial policy issues such as electoral reform, settlement expansion in the occupied territories, and Israel’s overall position on Palestine. What is clear is that the Israeli people have finally spoken.

The Netanyahu administration has also faced resistance within the security and intelligence establishment. Many seasoned generals, intelligence officers, and political figures have continuously expressed their dissatisfaction with Netanyahu’s obsession with the so-called “existential threat” posed by Iran.

On the one hand, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has time and again criticized Netanyahu’s plans for attacking Iran’s nuclear installations by emphasizing how invading Iran, a rational state that does not represent an immediate existential threat, would be a catastrophe. His sentiments were echoed by top intelligence and security figures, from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan to Chief of General Staff, Gavriel Ashkenazi. Even President Peres is said to have opposed Netanyahu’s plans.

The general sentiment among the critics is that the Arab Spring is fundamentally shifting the structure and nature of threats to Israel, requiring a rethinking of the country’s national security doctrine. Meanwhile, the Lieberman faction has been an aggressive proponent of settlement expansion and confrontation with Iran. So far, the radicals have been successful in ensuring that Netanyahu focuses his rhetoric on the “Iran threat.” However, there are indications that the security establishment might be rethinking the wisdom of confronting Iran militarily and instead increasingly relying on cyber attacks, assassination of nuclear scientists, and other unconventional means to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program.

U.S. Strategic Liability

Netanyahu’s policies are not only isolating his country within the region. Israel is also becoming a strategic liability for the United States. The Arab Spring has provided the best opportunity for the Obama administration to fulfill its vision of a stable and respectful relationship between America and the Islamic world.

America has been already criticized for its lack of resolve and consistency in dealing with Arab uprisings. Opposing Palestine’s bid for statehood and providing continued unconditional support for Israel would not only antagonize the Arab populace, it would also alienate allies such as Turkey and empower strategic competitors like Iran.

In light of the upcoming 2012 presidential elections, the Obama administration might suppose that it is safer to not “confront” Israel, since this could undermine its support among pro-Israel voters and donors. However, even Jewish Americans and leading pundits have been expressing their discontent with Israel’s intransigence and blatant insensitivity to America’s interests in the region. For instance, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has stated, “[the U.S. government] is fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the UN, even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.” Besides, there is a significant liberal and Muslim voting population, which would welcome any principled shift in America’s policy. Obama could finally redeem his progressive promises.

Refusal to pressure Israel wouldn’t be only a dire misreading of the situation. It would also jeopardize America’s long-term standing in an increasingly populist, democratizing region. The moral hazard of unconditional support is that it encourages further intransigence on the part of an emboldened ally, which is increasingly becoming a liability for America. It is time for the United States to acknowledge that the future of the region lies in cordial and stable relations with Muslim powers from Turkey to Egypt to Indonesia. The time has come for America to regain the trust and goodwill of the Islamic world. The clock is ticking fast.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst based in Manila. He can be reached at Jrheydarian@gmail.com