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Israel and the Arab Uprisings: Challenges in a Changing Middle East

January 20, 2012 |




Israel and the Arab Uprisings: Challenges in a Changing Middle East

Remarks to the Council on Foreign Relations:

The David Rockefeller Studies Program Roundtable Series


Daniel Levy

Senior Research Fellow; Co-Director, Middle East Task Force, New America Foundation

Senior Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations and the Century Foundation

New York, New York – December 15, 2011



Thank you Mohamad Bazzi and the Council on Foreign Relations.

This is clearly a moving target, and I would like to share with you my own thoughts as a work in progress. Some of them I have not necessarily convinced myself of yet!

I want to start by characterizing what I would say have been the two main Israeli responses in the first phase of the Arab awakening. Then to look more at what are the challenges that this has posed for Israel. I want to dig deeper into how I understand the current Israeli government to be responding to those challenges. And then I want to close by highlighting what I consider to be the shortcomings in the response approach of the Israeli government and the real Achilles heel in that and where it might go from here.



The Tel Aviv University and the Israeli Democracy Institute publish a monthly peace index, reproduced in the Yediot newspaper. In the latest poll from a few days ago, one of the questions asked was how have the changes in the Arab world affected Israel’s strategic situation?  68.5 percent of Israelis said that Israel’s strategic situation was worse as a consequence of events in the Arab world. And if I am going to initially and in very telegraphic terms characterize the government’s response, it reflects, or is reflected in, the findings of that public opinion survey.

PM Netanyahu’s approach has been: ‘Wait and see. This is not a time to take risks. This is a time of great change. The dust has not yet settled. Anyone who suggests that we should make a lurch for peace under these circumstances needs their head’s tested. And we have to very carefully calibrate how we respond.’ Prime Minister Netanyahu actually went as far as to say in a speech in the Knesset a couple of weeks ago, to paraphrase: ‘I have been vindicated. Several months ago when these uprisings began people said: ‘wow democracy, isn’t this great? -- the Arab world is catching up with the rest of us. Well at the time I told you that this is likely to end up horrible and now all you naïve people,’ and Netanyahu was basically pointing his finger here at the opposition inside his own parliament and to voices from abroad, notably President Obama: ‘you’ve been proven wrong. Look what has just happened in Tahrir Square (November 2011) and in the Egyptian elections.’

The second position, which has characterized some of the security establishment, certainly the mainstream opposition in the Knesset, and I think some of the advice that Israel has been getting  from its friends here and in Europe, has been: ‘Quick, this is urgent. Now you’ve got to rush getting that peace deal done while you still can, while at least part of the ancien regime of the Middle East is still in place, while some of the Arab states can still back this up; get the deal in place before a new region crystalizes against the backdrop of a reality where Israel still doesn’t have recognized borders and still doesn’t have peace with the Palestinians. While Abu Mazen is still there, go for it.’ 

In this case the former approach, on the face of it, sounds more reasonable. I do not see an opportunity to go for a quick dash deal with the Palestinians; I don’t think that the Palestinians can sustain it. I don’t think that the region can sustain it, and I don’t think it is where the mood in Israel is at.

I do think that there are things that Israel could be doing to improve its position, to improve its capacity to deal with a changing region, to thicken the sheet of ice on which we skate -- that the government is not doing, and the government is doing quite the opposite of.

For instance, Israel is expanding settlements and announcing further new settlement construction, taking a punitive approach to the Palestinian leadership on issues like the transfer of tax revenues (which Israel collects as part of existing economic agreements with the Palestinian Authority), and shrinking the space of democracy inside Israel, which is something that we see happening in some ways quite dramatically and very disturbingly.

So I think there are a slew of initiatives that have made the situation worse, but I don’t think that we are missing an opportunity. To the extent to which there is an opportunity here at all in the short-term, vis a vis the Palestinians, the opportunity is that Israel will feel more pressure to act and that it will see a set of circumstances turning against how Israel has previously managed its position in the region.



If I were to do an injustice to the animal kingdom I’d say that Israel has three options: the porcupine option, the chameleon option, and the caterpillar option. What do I mean by those?

(a)   The porcupine option is where the current government is at. Hunker down; going into defensive mode quills up. This is exclusively about the most effective defensive posture in response to a hostile surrounding.

(b)   The chameleon mode, which I think has characterized a lot of the more pragmatic leanings of Israeli leaderships in the past, has been ‘we have to adjust our color, we have to adapt to our surroundings.’ And I think that would be a series of measures that would be about thickening the ice. A more forward-leaning peace posture, gestures to the Palestinians...etc.

I am not convinced, that in the current circumstances. an old-style chameleon mode would work. 

(c)    The caterpillar option, which is the most counterintuitive, is how do we turn from a rather ugly caterpillar into a rather beautiful butterfly and soar above developments in the region. I think Israel could do that and I think Israel could thrive as a democracy surrounded by more democratic regimes, but that requires a degree of visionary leadership in pursuing de-occupation from the territories, genuine Palestinian sovereignty alongside Israel, a degree of visionary leadership in acknowledging the Palestinian dispossession of 1948, and a degree of visionary leadership in really making Israel an inclusive democracy also vis-a-vis its non-Jewish Palestinian Arab minority citizens -- 20 percent of the population. That visionary leadership isn’t there. As I say: terribly counterintuitive, but I thought I would put it out there at least.



Let’s begin by acknowledging the backdrop to these challenges.

First, an Israel not having peace on several of its borders; Israel not having recognized, permanents borders; Israel still being in control of the Palestinian population of the territories. One always has to keep that in mind.

Second, this comes against the backdrop of an Israeli regional management strategy that I think is now a thing of history. And I don’t think Israel yet has a regional management strategy to replace it. What do I mean by that? Israel historically had a strategy of what was called the ‘alliance of the periphery’. When Israel didn’t have relations with any of the surrounding Arab states, Israel built a set of relations with the non-Arab, second ring of surrounding states: Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia.

Once there is the breakthrough with Egypt, and over a decade later when you begin to get a breakthrough with the Palestinians in the Oslo process, a new narrative emerges – the peace process and the alliance and axis of moderation against extremism. At the same time you have the emergence of the axis of resistance.

It is right to ask whether a peace process that has been going now for 18 years was sustainable in perpetuity without making the hard choices on territory, settlements, Jerusalem…etc. I don’t think it was sustainable in perpetuity. But it was a strategy that had shown a degree of resilience which I personally would not have expected. I wouldn’t have expected that you could keep Oslo going for 18 years. Was it a particularly smart strategy? No. I mean when we talked about these allies as ‘moderate’, both the countries that Israel had formal peace treaties with and those who would attend peace-launching ceremonies – Annapolis and other occasions – they didn’t look moderate to their own publics. These weren’t democracies. But they were allies of the United States, and as such countries that Israel could work with. That is gone.

Thinking back to just over a year ago, when President Obama re-launches Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in September 2010, what did he do? He brought President Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan along as crucial window dressing to lend credibility to a seemingly moribund peace architecture. No one really believed this was going to deliver a deal. But if Mubarak and Abdullah were giving it their blessing at least it had a degree of traction and it became much easier for the Palestinians to attend.

In January of 2011 with talks and U.S. shuttling suspended, to demonstrate there was still life in the peace process, Netanyahu goes to Egypt for a meeting with President Mubarak. Mubarak is still willing to take that meeting. That is over. I don’t think King Abdullah of Jordan can carry this on his shoulders on his own. I don’t think the Gulf is going to step in and provide that support backdrop to the old peace process. And without all of that I don’t think Abbas can carry on with the old peace process. Occasional meetings? Yes. But there will be an inability to sustain the old make-believe because the regional support structure has collapsed. President Mubarak was so crucial to that support structure.

Personally, I’m not mourning that loss, not only because I don’t think it was great for the Egyptian people to be living under the Mubarak regime, but I also don’t think the make-believe was anyway sustainable or was doing any great favors to Israelis, Palestinians, or our friends around the world.

If I were being particularly mischievous I’d say that our current Foreign Minister Mr. Lieberman has ideas for a new strategy, let’s call it ‘an alliance of the super-periphery’ and perhaps the Prime Minister does as well. Working with Greece to offset the loss of Turkey, with Christian-majority or led countries of East Africa (we had the leaders of Kenya and Uganda in Israel recently plus South Sudan) against common ‘Islamist’ foes’...etc. I don’t think it’s a serious strategy.

So what are the new challenges? I want to briefly list 6 of them:

(1) ‘Hard’ security issues.

a) Egypt. Israel has had a security deployment in the past decades which will now have to be re-thought and which is of course already being re-thought. What do I mean by that in case it's not obvious? The Egyptian border was crucially a quiet border. The Egyptian border will now be given increased attention. The degree of perceived vacuum of lawlessness in the Sinai is something Israel is very focused on. Israel is constructing a fence on large parts of its border with Egypt. Israel, at a time of new budgetary priorities and challenges, is going to have to invest a lot more in addressing defensive positioning on its border with Egypt.

b) Syria and Lebanon. The Assad regime was no friends of Israel but it was deeply predictable and deeply manageable. Assad did not deploy hard power or military challenges towards Israel -- from Syria. Of course Assad has basically zero soft power currency in the world to use vis a vis Israel. Yes his regime was very important in the existence of a military threat from Lebanon, not from Syria itself. There is talk now in Israel that if the Assad regime perceives itself to be going down it might lob something at Israel as a distraction: to rally people to his cause and embellish his message that the Arab League countries are acting as American-Israeli stooges.

c) Iran. If there's instability in Syria and there's instability in Lebanon, and if Hezbollah feels threatened because its land route supply of arms through Syria is coming under increasing strain, what does Hezbollah do with that calculation? What does Iran do with that calculation? If it’s losing Syria. I don’t want to focus on Iran in these opening comments. We can discuss during Q & A – it is after all not part of the ‘Arab Uprisings’.

Does Iran feel that what it is gaining in Iraq that might offset what it is losing in Syria, with the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq? Is Iran going to act in ways that it hasn’t acted previously if it feels more challenged, more desperate? That certainly is among the challenges that Israel faces.

d) Back to the Eastern Front? Israeli planners’ are looking at the return of the Eastern Front military doctrine, at the potential threat posed by a continuum running from Iran to Iraq via Jordan and the West Bank to Israel. I think Israel has the hardware that’s more than capable of dealing with that (highly improbable) land corridor threat, but a situation in which Iran has more influence in Iraq, and Jordan is potentially a domino to fall in the future, fuels a dusting off of old Eastern Front doctrines.

(2) Public opinion in the Arab world now matters in ways it didn’t matter and will be reflected in ways that it was not reflected in the past. I have said on several occasions that Arab democracy will be less tolerant of Palestinian disenfranchisement, of denial of Palestinian freedom, than Arab autocracy was. Arab autocracy could of course manage a mutually duplicitous relationship with Israel. Israel could bemoan being “the only democracy in the Middle East”, while maintaining very convenient relationships with the American-allied Arab autocracies. And those Arab autocracies would lend rhetorical support to the Palestinian cause but would be close to America and close to Israel at the same time, doing little to advance Palestinian rights.

When public opinion comes into the equation in ways that it didn’t in the past, this is likely to influence policy in ways also that it didn’t in the past. And this is going to be a challenge for Israel. President Obama said it himself at the AIPAC conference in May: ‘we’re no longer in a period’, I’m paraphrasing, ‘where Israel can cut a deal with one or two Arab dictators. Now you need peace to be credible with the broad masses of the Arab public.’

(3) What does this mean in terms of the balance of soft power on the international stage? A democratic Arab leadership that appears in the international arena and says: ‘you came to our support when we demanded freedom. You even sent your forces into Libya to secure their freedom. What are you doing about Palestinian freedom?’ If that’s coming from a democratic Arab leadership it has a very different moral weight – not that this is likely to tip the scales on its own – but it has a very different moral weight compared to an Assad or Mubarak saying ‘but what about freedom, and justice, and democracy for the Palestinians.’ And this is taking place exactly at the moment where Israel is squandering its own soft power currency in quite dramatic and deeply disturbing ways. A model might be Turkey – just in terms of what it does on soft power issues – Turkey stays in NATO, Turkey has a strong diplomatic presence in the international arena, Turkey has obviously taken a more assertive line diplomatically with Israel recently.

(4) The rise of democratic Islamists. Here I think that there is probably the most distance between how Israel is perceiving developments and how Washington and elsewhere in the West are perceiving developments. There is a strong tendency to look at democratic Islamist parties as something that we can work with and anyway will learn to work with given that’s who the people, when given the choice, are choosing. Israel I think has not come to that position yet.

Of course Israel historically did take this position. If one thinks back to the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel chooses Hamas over the PLO. Israel clamps down on Fatah and the PLO in the 1980’s and allows a relatively free reign to the Islamists to flourish and build up civil society, charitable institutions, -- on the assumption that they will be inward looking and less of a challenge than assertive Palestinian nationalists. But I don’t think that is where Israeli thinking is at the moment.

(5) A weakened pax Americana and the challenge that poses to Israel. These waves of Arab uprisings are taking place at a time when the West and America are weakened in terms of the model that we provide of democracy, in terms of our ability to intervene economically (there’s not going to be any Marshall Plans), and at a time when Washington is signaling ‘we would like to be focusing more on Asia’, and that is where eyes are focused. And Europe has its own preoccupations, occupation of Palestine not topping the list. Ironically, Israel’s own actions hasten American decline.

(6) The impact on the Palestinians. There hasn’t been a Palestinian Spring – a point we will return to shortly.



For me the key to understanding Israel’s response to these challenges is the following: while Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying ‘how can I be expected to move now in such a period of uncertainty?’, it would not be doing him an injustice to suggest that Netanyahu was not chomping at the bit to make a peace deal before Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire. Was Netanyahu just searching for exactly the right way to pull out of the settlements, and exactly the right way to divide Jerusalem, and all this has thrown his best laid plans of peace and two states off track? Perhaps not!

The current Israeli government is a combination of reluctant, minimalist de-occupiers and committed greater Israelists. And one has to understand their responses to the challenges of the Arab uprising against that backdrop.

It’s true that Prime Minister Netanyahu in a Bar Ilan speech in the summer of 2009 said “two states” for the first time. I think what that represented on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu was a realization that: ‘why not say “two states”? If the Palestinians are willing to call these small islands of self-governance in the West Bank a state then why should we tell them ‘no you can’t call it a state’? It represented a rhetorical shift in position rather than anything else; the Likud platform for instance still rejects the two-state solution.

So, what is the response strategy?

I will outline 5 points. I should also be cautious in attributing a degree of strategic premeditated foresight to what might be a set of haphazard responses on the part of the government and I may be doing too much credit to the extent to which this is joined up thinking. But here is what I think those responses are:

(1) Stabilize what still can be stabilized from the old Arab order that served Israel. Who can you still work with in the region? If you can cooperate quietly with the counter-revolutionary forces in the Gulf, who are doing everything to push back against further revolution, then do that. If Saudi Arabia and Israel have a shared interest in keeping the Jordanian monarchy in place then they’re not going to hold a joint press conference, but they are going to be quietly working together and with the United States. There was the distinction this year between the republics and the monarchies. The republics have collapsed. The monarchies are all still in place, so work with that if you’re Netanyahu’s Israel to try and keep that in place.

If SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Egypt, still looks to America; if SCAF still includes people Israel has deep, longstanding security relationships with – then work with SCAF.

You look at Syria (Israel has been very cautious in its approach to Syria) and you say ‘maybe the successor regime in Syria will be a lot more favorably disposed towards the West, towards America, and by extension towards Israel’. Look at the interview given by SNC head Burhan Ghalioun’s to the Wall Street Journal.   

(2) Hope that the distractions buy you time. Hope that the surrounding area is far too involved with itself; far too internally focused on what’s going on. Islamists are trying to consolidate power rather than think about the Palestinians. Sectarian clashes keep people rather preoccupied. Try to make the Arab Spring an exercise in pushing the Palestinian issue to off-off-off Broadway.

(3) Take this as an opportunity in some places to weaken traditional foes. I’ve mentioned Syria already, I’ve mentioned supply lines to Hezbollah. Of course the big question is Iran: is 2012 a perfect storm in terms of a strike on Iran? I don’t think a decision has been made and don’t want to speculate further during these opening remarks. The same probably does not apply to Hamas, strengthened by recent developments, which is why you might be seeing Israel pursuing a set of understandings and ceasefires with Hamas -- the Shalit release…etc.

(4) Particularly important in an American context and given what we’ve heard recently in the Republican presidential primary chatter – Israel reframes its soft-power set of shared values with the West and with America. Make this less about ‘we share a set of values as liberal, tolerant, open democracies’ and make this more about ‘we share a set of challenges as embattled democracies in a struggle for survival against encroaching Sharia, and especially as Israel on the front lines of a civilizational struggle between a Judeo-Christian world and a threatening, extremist Muslim world.’ I don’t think what Speaker Gingrich, Santorum, and others on the Republican side have said is dramatically out of step with some of the political thinking in Israel.

I know there’s a tendency to sometimes say ‘wow, look how wacko those Republicans are – it’s so different in Israel’. Not so fast. I think they’re reflecting a vein of thinking in quite significant Israeli governing circles. Re-define international law when it’s inconvenient. Re-define what the shared values are.

(5) Finally, Israel is also maintaining some of its pre-existing management strategies. For instance, Israeli military R+D and arms exports remain an important way of building relationships to Russia, India, and also for the future, China. A visit for the first time by a Chinese chief of staff to Israel this year suggests that Israel is thinking long-term about how it copes with American decline and with the rise of other powers.



The strategy that Israel is pursuing is unsustainable. I’m not going to run through all of the reasons – time is short and some are obvious, but I will draw out a couple.

The Palestinian issue cannot be relegated indefinitely to off-off-off Broadway. If for no other reasons (and there are many other reasons) because there is an internal logic and dynamic to maintaining the occupation which guarantees that there are going to be these sparks, moments of escalations, these Operation Cast Leads. And as soon as those happen, you’re back center-stage. You’re back on Broadway at a time when it’s much more difficult for Arab leaders to take the approach Mubarak did – wait, avoid, allow Israel time...etc. The public pressure is going to look different. I also think Israel is taking terrible risks with the erosion of its own soft-power and the anti-democratic tendencies gaining ground – and that too can be directly linked to what maintaining an illegal occupation does to a democratic polity.

But the real Achilles heel of this strategy does come back to ‘it’s the Palestinians, stupid’ – in the following way. Israeli strategy is hanging by a thread, and that thread is how robust the Oslo management structure can prove itself to be. How robust a Palestinian Authority which does not challenge Israel, which is incredibly convenient for Israel – how robust that will continue to be. I wouldn’t have given it 18 years. So is it going to collapse in 2012? I don’t know. That thread is fraying.

We haven’t seen a Palestinian Spring. It’s very interesting, a year into the Arab Awakening. There are good reasons we haven’t seen a Palestinian Spring. There is fatigue after two intifadas, albeit two very different intifadas. There is of course the system of closure and separation in the West Bank. There is political division within the Palestinian camp. The Palestinian Authority is dependent on donor goodwill and Israeli goodwill just to survive. 180,000 Palestinians draw their salaries from the donor-supported PA. That’s one million-plus dependents, that’s the largest single employer of Palestinians. That is deeply counter-revolutionary. If you had that kind of aid per capita in Egypt I’m not sure you’d have seen what you saw – or in Tunisia.

And finally size matters. 2.5 million Palestinians are in the West Bank. The ability to mobilize tens of thousands is very different when compared to a country of 80 million or even a country of 23 million like Syria.

But, having said all of that, I don’t think Israel should act with such hubris in relation to the Palestinians or to the robustness of the Palestinian Authority.

I am not here to advocate for them, but analytically speaking there are several strategies, not mutually contradictory, that the Palestinians could pursue: closing the PA, calling for democratic rights in one state, calling for sanctioning of Israel, popular non-violent civil protest, or diplomatically challenging Israel on the international stage (not in a symbolic way by raising a flag at UNESCO, but in a meaningful way like going to the International Criminal Court). The Palestinians haven’t done any of these things. Because they haven’t done them it doesn’t mean they never will do them. And it’s a huge bet and a huge risk to assume that they never will do those things. Of course some of the things we are beginning to see. The non-violent struggle at a local level, not yet popping and hitting the tens of thousands, but at a local level. If people followed the killing of Mustafa Tammimi, a Palestinian protester in the village of Nabi Saleh in Area C of the West Bank, you’ll see that that’s happening. And of course the BDS movement.

And my final point, there’s another strategy that the Palestinians might take and this brings me back to what’s going on domestically in Israel and back to the Palestinian strategy of summud – of steadfastness. We are likely to see an increased perception on the Palestinian side that as long as Palestinians can avoid a repeat of ’48, of being pushed off the land, then the internal contradictions within Israel are going to collapse that society in on itself. And there couldn’t be a more dramatic week in which to make that statement than this week if people have been following what’s going with settlers attacking IDF bases.

Palestinian strategists reading the Israeli press this week might say to themselves: ‘just stay on the land, what more do we need to do?’ And of course that’s not related to the Arab uprisings so in fact I’d say that the biggest challenge Israel faces is the challenge of the unfinished job of Israeli democracy and the unfinished job of a Jewish and democratic state.

Let’s be honest: there is an inherent tension there in the notion of a Jewish, democratic state. Israel hasn’t worked that through satisfactorily in all the years of its existence. And let’s also recognize something: the right-wing has basically been in power in Israel for 35 years – there was an important hiatus, the Rabin Government 1992-5 – one that could have led in different directions, and probably for the first time tried to grapple honestly with the Jewish and democratic tension.

But it didn’t happen. And it’s no longer the right-wing of pragmatic, old-school Likudism that is dominant: Of a Menachem Begin who could withdrawal from the Sinai; even of an Ariel Sharon who could withdraw from Gaza. This is not all of Israel, but important elements on the right in Israel now articulate a position which they did not publicly acknowledge in the past.

The new mantra goes something like this: ‘100 years ago we had nothing, then we got the Balfour Declaration, then we got the partition plan giving us 55 percent of the land, then in 1948 we took 78 percent of the land and made sure there weren’t many Palestinians left, 19 years later in 1967 we got all of the biblical homeland. 43 years later anyone who thinks we’re about to abandon Judea and Samaria, and the Tomb of Patriarchs in Hebron, and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus in order to make some liberals in Tel Aviv, New York, or San Francisco feel more comfortable with their Liberal Zionism, needs their head’s tested. We aren’t going anywhere’.

The twin assault of Jewish nationalist zealotry and ultra-orthodox zealotry is a twin assault I’m not sure Israeli democracy is strong enough to withstand.  We do have strong democratic institutions but I want to end with this note – it’s not a twin assault that Israeli democracy is at the moment showing itself robust enough, nor are Israel’s friends overseas -- some of them I’d say “so-called friends” overseas -- showing themselves strong enough to confront.

What does one do?

Three options. Visionary leadership. There was a moment of hope in the summer with the j14 protest movement. Sadly, I can’t see the visionary leadership in Israeli politics today. Secondly, can pressures and influences from without change the equation, change the thinking, the cost/benefit calculation of enough of Israel’s public and leaders to respond, to make a choice, and the right choice? Or thirdly do we face more bloodshed? – this we must work to avoid.

As you see, I am trying to think these issues through for myself. I do look forward to your questions and to discussing them with you.

Thank you.


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