How Israel won the Arab Spring, and why a dangerous new instability threatens the entire region's geopolitical landscape.
- By Danny DanonDanny Danon is a member of the Knesset and formerly served as Israel's deputy minister of defense.
Less than two years ago, much of the world believed that a new dawn of hope was cracking in the Middle East. The voice of the people, the aspirations of youth and democracy were marching together to cast out old dictatorships. Many naively believed that freedom was about to triumph over entrenched authoritarianism.
It is abundantly clear today that such earnest hopes were uniformly and regrettably misplaced. There is no better reminder of this than the dangerous agreement signed in Geneva by Iran and the world powers that comprise the P5+1 on Nov. 23. As we approach 2014, the Middle East is now on the brink of a new nuclear arms race between the region’s Shiite and Sunni forces. The voices of liberal democracy, meanwhile, have been quashed by screaming jet fighters, deadly poison gas, and menacing religious fratricide.
Israelis believe that the age of prophecy is long gone. Yet one need not aspire to be a prophet to draw one remarkable insight that is as unlikely as the Arab Spring itself: Israel is strategically stronger today than it was before this season of upheaval commenced. At the same time, the instability surrounding us serves as a warning that we should not rush into artificially induced and potentially dangerous diplomatic processes in an attempt to alter the existing geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.
Now is the time to sit tight, closely observe, and analyze unfolding events — all the while remaining vigilantly on guard against new and unforeseen dangers to the Jewish state. We need to look no farther than to Israel’s actual borders — in every direction — for this point to be made.
Let’s start with Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian military’s rejection of Muslim Brotherhood control has been a near-lethal blow to the Islamist organization’s stolid allies in Gaza, Hamas. The current Egyptian government is doing what its predecessor did not: locating and effectively destroying as many as 150 smuggling tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza — tunnels that were used to transport weapons and contraband — and moving to end radical Muslim control of large chunks of Gaza. As a result, the boundary between Gaza and Egypt is no longer a leaking sieve for unchecked terrorist travels.
Even countries that are technically at war with Israel recognize how the balance of power is shifting in the region. Recent news reports have detailed how Saudi Arabia is furious about the Obama administration’s latest actions in the Middle East — especially the recent agreement with Iran — leading to a rapprochement of sorts with Israel. Saudi Arabia now believes that tension between Sunni and Shiite powers has, to a degree, supplanted regional enmity that has historically been directed at Israel.
Although one won’t read it in the Saudi press anytime soon, millions of people in the Gulf — supported by many minorities including Kurds, Christians, Druse, Sufis, and Baluchis, among others — are quietly banking on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promise not to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. This is especially true in light of the recent nuclear accord with Iran.
Even the Syrian crisis has improved Israel’s strategic position in the region. While we pray for a speedy and peaceful end to the bloodshed, Israel is fully committed to remaining outside the civil war. This is not our fight. We will continue, however, to act to ensure that "game changing" weapons do not fall in to the hands of anyone who threatens the state of Israel. One result of the conflict is indisputable: a weakened President Bashar al-Assad and the disruption of the line of strategic hegemony running directly from Iran through Syria to Lebanon is a boon to Israeli security. That disruption seems beyond reversal, no matter what might occur in the future.
Finally, the situation in Lebanon has shifted as well. The paramilitary group Hezbollah has dispatched many of its fighters to Syria, bogging down men and logistics while at the same time reigniting strong opposition from other Lebanese who want no part in Syria’s mayhem. While there is danger that Hezbollah is using the Syrian civil war to train for future battle against Israel, it is even more significant that the so-called Party of God has been attacked with bombs in Lebanon, seen its supply line from Teheran constricted, and had weapons shipments mysteriously destroyed on the ground. Even the European Union has belatedly labeled it the terrorist organization it is.
The Arab Spring has seen the threat posed by all of Israel’s traditional, state-based foes either fully eliminated or significantly diminished. On the one hand, this means that, in the short-term at least, citizens of Israel can sleep more soundly at night. On the other hand, the challenge remains to identify the next danger on the horizon in the Middle East. As I like to remind my colleagues, our region is extremely fluid. When I was a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, we held a meeting the day before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign. Not a single expert in the room predicted that this monumental shift was going to take place in 24 hours.
We must closely observe the volatile situation in the Middle East with this in mind. Israel might be in a better strategic position to face the historical challenges that undoubtedly face us in the coming years, but events can be hard to predict in this part of the world. As a result, we must remain ever-vigilant to protect the people of Israel.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.| Interview |