The New York Times
February 23, 2011
CASABLANCA, Morocco — The old certainties of the Middle East have been upended, and Israel finds many of its most reliable partners buffeted or blown away by popular agitation from below. Egypt was long one of Israel’s most important allies, and ties were quietly close to Tunisia. With demonstrations for change also in Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco, Israel finds itself floundering.
Israelis worry that Arab democracy movements will ultimately be dominated by extremists, as happened in Iran after the 1979 revolution that ousted the shah. They worry about the chaotic transition between revolt and democratic stability, if it ever comes. They see Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, even if it remains a minority of Egyptian opinion, as pressing for more solidarity with the Palestinians and Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood. And they fear that Israel’s regional partners in checking Iran are under threat or falling.
Arab analysts counter that new Arab realities and democracies should be welcomed by Israel, because the new Arab generation shares many of the same values as Israel and the West. They argue that there is no support among Egypt’s leaders for the abrogation of the 1979 peace treaty, though it is unpopular with the public, and that the Egyptian Army will not disrupt foreign policy.
“There is no regime that is going to be against or hostile toward Israel in the near term,” said Mohamed Darif, a political scientist at Morocco’s King Hassan II University. “There has been an evolution in the Arab world, among political elites and in civil society. Israel is a fact.”
But new governments are more likely to increase their support for the Palestinian cause, with Egypt already reopening the crossing with Hamas-run Gaza. That new attitude could pressure Israel to do more to find a settlement, some analysts argue. Most others believe that Israel will instead resist, arguing that it cannot make concessions because it is now encircled by more hostile neighbors.
“The widespread indignity felt by Egyptians who see themselves as the jailers of Gaza on behalf of Israel and Washington will give way to a realistic policy by which Egyptians use their ties with Israel to push the latter to adopt a more law-abiding stance towards the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese,” Rami G. Khouri, an analyst at the American University of Beirut, wrote for YaleGlobal online. “Egypt will keep peace with Israel, but raise the temperature on issues of profound national concern to Arabs.”
The Israeli-Palestinian issue was not important to the democratic revolts, said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan and its first ambassador to Israel. But he said it might well be in the future.
“Not solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue today will complicate relations between the emerging Arab governments and their peoples on one side and the West on the other,” said Mr. Muasher, now vice president of the Carnegie Endowment. “In this atmosphere of freedom, it will be very difficult for new Arab governments to ignore the occupation.”
Olivier Roy, a professor at the European University Institute in Italy, also expects a new Egyptian government to have “a more open policy toward the Palestinians, helping Gazans more through aid and transport.” But he argued that “it won’t go very far,” adding that many Israelis on the right prefer a Gaza dependent on Egypt, rather than on Iran.
While Israelis worry about the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Roy argued that the revolt surprised and sidelined the group. “The Brotherhood will be very happy to represent some sort of opposition,” he said. “They don’t want to be in the front line.
“So I don’t foresee a grand geostrategic change,” Mr. Roy said. “But the Saudis and Israelis are convinced there will be one.”
Other analysts see a major opportunity for Israel. “It’s a whole new software now being unfolded,” said Gilles Kepel, a scholar of Islam at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. “I believe there’s a big opening, and the ball is in the Israeli court.”
The Islamists in the region are splitting between the radicals and “the ‘participationists,’ whose role model is the governing party in Turkey,” Mr. Kepel said. “They will have to deal with democracy and see their ideological commitments erode.”
But Israelis are anxious, especially about Jordan, where the king appears shaky, and about both the Muslim Brotherhood and left-wing secular voices in Egypt. The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, praised Egyptian democracy in an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, but noted with concern that “the reformist leader Ayman Nour declared that ‘the era of Camp David is over.’ ”
Israelis have also noted the emergence in Tahrir Square last week of Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a leading Egyptian Islamic theologian who had been exiled by Mr. Mubarak, and the willingness of the Egyptian Army to let some Iranian warships through the Suez Canal.
The main debate is whether Israel should “hunker down, seeing how unreliable our partners are,” or whether Israel should “take itself off the agenda by making some progress on the Palestinian issue,” Mr. Heller said, which he described as the harder sell. “Of course in Washington the debate is much the same.”
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and former aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that Arab democracy could make Israel more secure.
“For years, Arab leaders who thought they had legitimacy problems because they were not elected played several chords to the populace — Arab unity, Islamic solidarity, and most important, the struggle against Israel,” he said. “So if you have regimes legitimized by democratic elections and accountable governance, then they will depend less on the conflict for their own internal standing.”
Even so, “the transition to democracy is full of all kinds of land mines,” Mr. Gold said, arguing that the regional destabilization had helped Iran, which Israel regards as its most important threat.
Iran itself, of course, has been struggling with its own domestic dissent, but Israeli analysts do not see the government as currently vulnerable.
Israelis worry that their country will be encircled by Islamists supported by Iran — Hezbollah to the north, Hamas to the south and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — and that new security problems will result from a breakdown of intelligence sharing with Egypt and increased smuggling of people, weapons, money and goods across the Sinai.
Many analysts see a growing role for Turkey, a Muslim democracy with a strong army and ties to the United States, Israel and the West. “Turkey will be a great beneficiary of Arab democratization, as more open, dynamic Arab societies learn from Turkey’s great leap forward” and its “soft and tantalizing brand of Islamo-secularism,” Mr. Khouri wrote.
The Turkish model would be a good outcome for Israel, many Israelis agree. But as they also noted, relations with Turkey have been deeply strained by its new closeness to Muslim neighbors like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.