With each passing day Mideast tensions seem to grow deeper and more complex, and the notion of an “Arab Spring” that brought such hope to millions 10 months ago seems particularly naïve now as violence has returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The point of contention is no longer the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak, now on trial for his life, but rather the future path of a society torn between calls for stability and change, and more specifically the role of the Egyptian military, until recently widely respected as the anchor of national authority. The deadly clash that erupted in recent days pits Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, calling for civilian rule, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, seeking to maintain leverage even after national elections are held.
As usual, Israel and its supporters are caught in a bind in observing the radical changes taking place in the Mideast. There is hope that the democratic impulses within Egypt will lead, if not in the short term, to a more open and moderate society that can accommodate the reality of a Jewish state on its border. But there is also the fear that a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge, with its long history of violent opposition to a Jewish state in the region.
In Syria, the fall of Bashar Assad could lead to a more moderate Sunni government or a more radical takeover by Iran, through its Hezbollah proxy.
Similarly, in turning to the existential threat of a nuclear Iran, there was gratitude this week for the U.S. leading Western allies in a push to expand sanctions against Iran, aimed at its banks and the oil and gas industries. But there is also deep concern that Israel’s allies are loathe to contemplate more aggressive tactics beyond sanctions and that, in the end, Iran will continue its push for nuclear arms apace.
Israel desperately does not want to be perceived as the leader of efforts to stop Iran, arguing that the entire region and the free world will be in danger if Tehran gets the bomb. But Israel, as the primary target of a government in Iran vowing to destroy the Jewish state, has far more at stake than any other country and is well aware of the so-called Begin Doctrine.
That policy goes back to 1981, when Prime Minister Menachem Begin sent Israeli jets to destroy a nuclear reactor being built in Iraq. The world, including the U.S., condemned the move at the time, though Washington later acknowledged that it might well have prevented a catastrophic war in the region.
If an enemy says he will destroy you, Begin stated, believe him, and pre-empt him.
Yossi Klein Halevi, the author, journalist and clear-headed Mideast analyst, noted this week that the irony for Israel is that the Arab Spring has intensified Israel’s worries.
Speaking at a conference on Israel advocacy on Sunday at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester, Klein Halevi noted that the “moderate” leader of the much-heralded new Tunisian government called Israel “a germ that will soon disappear.”
He said the remark underscored “how lonely it is to be Israel,” which he described as “the world’s curmudgeon” when it comes to assessing the Arab Spring.
We realize now that the dramatic protests and revolts that began a year ago were but the first step in a long and complex process, with the end results still unknown. Israel has good reason to worry in the short term while hoping that, down the road, Arab citizens will choose human rights over rigid ideologies. In the meantime, Jerusalem must make its own decisions based on strategic clarity about what’s best for its own citizens.