USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen discusses how the Arab Spring could impact Israel.

May 3, 2011

USIP’s Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen discusses how the Arab Spring could impact Israel.

What has been the impact of the “Arab Spring” on Israel’s strategic thinking?

The impact, of course, remains to be seen. Like everyone else, Israel can only watch these dynamic events unfolding and conjecture as to the direction and implications of this historic transformative movement in the region.

Certainly there is both hope and concern. Taking the latter sentiment, Israelis – politicians, policymakers, and public alike -- have been watching the transition with a keen eye to the future of their peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and to the de facto state of calm along the border with Syria. Taking Egypt alone, since the signing of the treaty in 1979, the peace between the two countries has always been a cold one, yet one that has vastly enhanced Israel’s security situation. Accordingly, Israel is watching the transition unfold in Egypt with vested interest.

Chief among its concerns is the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force in the country. Many Egypt observers believe that the Brotherhood stands to gain from any rapidly-implemented move to democratic elections given their high level of organization, and while many Israeli strategists wager that the peace treaty is safe for the time being, there is a concomitant awareness that in efforts to respond to popular sentiment, no new Egyptian regime is likely to invest in -- let alone prioritize -- the relationship with Israel.

Growing instability in the Sinai Peninsula is an additional focal point for Israelis. Even before the uprisings began, there were increasing signs of erosion in the ability and/or willingness of the Egyptian police to prevent the flow of arms from Iran reaching Gaza through the Sinai. With the May 1 announcement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry that the country intends to permanently open the border with Gaza, and coming on the heels of an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation deal between Hamas and Fatah, many Israeli political and defense analysts are viewing the peninsula with grave concern, worried that it could soon become a safe haven for terrorists on their border, and a safe passage for weapons with which to arm them. Ultimately, such fears relate to Israel's number one strategic concern: Iranian power and influence in the region. Under Mubarak, Egypt served, to some degree, as a check on these ambitions given its own interest in countering Iran's regional and nuclear aspirations. While it is unlikely that Egypt -- under any new leadership -- would become a natural ally of Iran, there is a fear in Israel that Egypt will be so mired down in domestic concerns for the foreseeable future, that it will have neither the time nor inclination to focus with such determination on the Iranian threat.

However, as Israel’s president Shimon Peres noted at a speaking engagement hosted at the United States Institute of Peace on April 5, 2011, “‘Worry’ is not a policy.” There are many voices in Israel that share their President’s view that ultimately political liberalization in the region will be the best recipe for peace and stability. Now-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this same argument, in fact, to a joint session of the United States’ Congress in 1996. In that speech, Netanyahu opined that “…the best guarantor against military adventurism is accountable, democratic government,” and that accordingly the best course was for the democratic world to “…encourage pluralism and greater freedom in the Arab world.”

Like the rest of the world, Israel is watching to see if the “Arab Spring” will in fact lead to new forms of open and democratic governance in the region. Arguably with more at stake than other outside observers, however, Israel is also watching to see what such openness and political accountability will mean for the future of its relations with its Arab neighbors. And while many in the country feel that this great unknown points to a need for further retrenchment, there is also a sizeable degree of cautious optimism that the changing face of the region could usher in new opportunities for redefining relations in the Middle East.

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Has the lack of certainty regarding “Arab Spring” outcomes affected Israel’s calculation with regard to the Peace Process with the Palestinians?

The lack of certainty has affected everyone’s calculations. Last week’s announcement of a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas was almost certainly driven by Palestinian domestic concerns in light of the regional popular uprisings and this, in turn, forces the hand of Israel – and the United States – regarding its willingness to talk peace with a Palestinian leadership that is to include Hamas. This is particularly so since President Peres’ visit to the United States in early April appeared to represent a view shared both by Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu that it would be more prudent to seize the moment and proactively work towards an agreement with the Palestinians, rather than waiting to assess the regional appetite and support for such a deal once the dust settles. This apparent calculation led to talk of Prime Minister Netanyahu arriving in the United States at the end of this month with plans for a way forward on the peace process. The prospect of Palestinian unity has no doubt changed this calculation. However, with Netanyahu’s visit three weeks away, if we have learned anything about the Middle East over the last three months it is that three weeks is a long time and game changers could be just around the corner.

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  • Eye on the Middle East and North Africa - Experts from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) are closely following developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In a series of reports and interviews, they cover a wide range of issues.

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