Tel Aviv — One month after democracy protests in Egypt touched off a wave of popular upheaval around the Middle East, Israeli officials and analysts are cautioning that regional instability is so high and so fluid that it’s too early to say how it will affect the Jewish state.
After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak — a key ally of Israel — was forced from power earlier this month, the regional picture has become more complex: Libyan strongman Muammar Kadaffi is trying to put down a revolt, a minority Sunni monarchy in Bahrain is struggling against democracy demands from the Shiite majority, and Iran is grappling with fresh demonstrations from reformists.
“The regional situation is even more revolutionary than before,” said Yossi Alpher, the co-editor of the online Israel-Palestinian opinion forum BitterLemons.org. “The situation is even less clear and less stable than it was a month ago.”
The prevailing sentiment among Israelis is one of anxiety. While observers believe that a shift from autocracy to democracy would boost the stability of states around the region, the road to Western-style democracy is seen as a several-year journey fraught with risks of growing influence of radical Islam.
The change in Egypt highlights the paradox facing the Jewish state. Many in Israel were exhaling after the military council that took over for Mubarak announced it would uphold the 32-year-old bilateral peace treaty. And yet, those leaders are seen as closely linked to the recently deposed president and unlikely to lead the kind of reform demanded by protesters.
Elik Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, cautions that shifts at the top are not enough, and that real democratic reform needs to be executed at the grass roots. It’s a pattern that he believes is likely to be replicated across the Middle East.
“The main change is a cosmetic one,” Shaked said. “New faces will come up now instead of the old corrupt ones we have known for the last 20 years,” he said.
“Many talk about a revolution in the Middle East, but I beg to differ,” Shaked continued. “There is no democracy around the corner because of the events of the last two months. There will be different authoritarian regimes in Egypt and in Tunisia and Libya. They will not bring democracy with them because the fundamental concepts of a democracy don’t exist in Egypt or any other Arab state at this moment.”
On the other hand, Shaked said that the prospects for Israeli cooperation with the Egyptian military council — led by general commander Mohammed Tantawi — is positive. He described Israeli dealings with the Egyptian military as efficient, smooth and businesslike.
“They were officers and gentlemen”’ in bilateral talks on security in the Sinai Peninsula and on arms smuggling at the border with Gaza. “I hoped to have the same dialogue with the Egyptian diplomats.”
That said, Shaked said the decision by the Egyptian government last month to allow the passage of two Iranian military ships through the Suez Canal was a “mistake”’ that undermines the strategic interests of Western-allied Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he said.
Indeed, some experts in Israel believe that the real alarm in Israel goes beyond Egyptian-Israel relations to the regional balance of power with Iran. That’s why the demonstrations in Bahrain, a tiny island nation that is not a principal player in the Arab Israeli conflict are a cause for concern in Israel as well. The weakening of Sunni rulers across the Persian Gulf opens up a vacuum for Tehran to step into and expand its foothold that reaches to Lebanon and Gaza.
“The immediate concern is not about Egypt sitting in Taba with a tank,” said an anonymous Western diplomat. “It’s about the weakening of Sunni states and the strengthening of Shiite states, and it’s about the lack of certainty about what comes next.”
This week, there were two fundamentally different voices from Israeli ministers on the turmoil. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman emphasized the risks, saying that there’s “a real concern that those that will rule ultimately will be radicals guided by Iran.”
Meanwhile, Strategic Affairs Minister Dan Meridor told Israel Radio of the “fascinating” changes throughout the region that require “new thinking” on relations with the Middle East. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, has advocated renewing an effort to reach a peace deal with Syria.
Indeed, two schools of thought on Israeli responses have emerged. The first believes that the instability roiling the region requires Israel to be more careful in its dealings with its neighbors. That potential means more investment in defense, more security guarantees in peace talks and limiting risks for peace.
“Israel has to be extremely cautious. It will need to be prepared to increase its deterrence capability, and its image of being able to counter any new military threats,”’ said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.
Though he said that Israel should encourage building democratic states over the long term, in the immediate future, Israel needs to be concerned about the volatility of that process as it sizes up new prospects for negotiations.
Syria talks are “going to be a very tough sell to the Israeli public: the evidence of Syrian involvement with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas is blatant. All the advocates of negotiations can put forth are hopes — and hopes are not enough to get Israelis to accept huge risks of withdrawal from the Golan Heights, particularly when the region is so unstable.”
Many Israelis see the fact that regional protests are affecting Western-backed Arab states as evidence of the waning of U.S. power in the Middle East — another vacuum that could be exploited by Iran.
The newfound potency of the Arab street is likely to lead those countries to keep more of a distance from Washington. That is another complication for Israel, which heavily relies on the U.S. strategic support.
“Democracy is going to improve the leverage and the position of the Arab world and the Arab street in the international community,” said Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert. “People can no longer say, ‘Who cares about what goes on the Arab street; it has no impact anyway.’ Now it does.’’
The second school of thought on the upheaval sees instability like waning U.S. power as a reason for Israel to do more to engage in peace talks.
“If the current Israeli government continues the status quo with its relationship with the Arab world, then every week and every month Israel is going to be more isolated,” Javedanfar said. “Not because the Iranians are particularly clever or brilliant; more so because the current government’s policies are counterproductive. Settlements are weakening the PLO. New political developments in the region have created new laws of gravity which Israel can only use to its advantage if it decides to pursue the peace track seriously and stop antagonizing the entire region.”
Alpher said that renewed peace negotiations with the Palestinians or the Syrians would help offset the risks of regime change by strengthening Israel’s diplomatic leverage in the region. By contrast, Israel today faces growing isolation amid blame for the breakdown of peace talks.
“It’s fair to say that Israel has not yet developed a strategy for dealing with a changing Arab world,” he said. “The fact remains it would be nice if we had some leaders who shared some strategic thinking with us of where we should be going. The government doesn’t seem to have that.”