Israel has always had to cope with the consequences of being located in a dangerous neighbourhood, but in the past year, the instability has reached unprecedented levels. The harsh dictatorships in Libya, Yemen and Egypt have been replaced, the Syrian police-state is on the verge of collapse, and the rest of the region – from North Africa to Iran – is boiling.
Under the circumstances, all predictions should be taken with more than a grain of salt. We may see the return of mafia-like dictatorships, under different management, or some cases, such as Libya and Syria, where the artificial state structures may collapse in civil war between tribes and other power centres. A similar fate could await Iraq after the departure of the American forces that have kept the various groups – Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites and others – in a somewhat united national framework.
In general, Islamist forces are gaining power, as demonstrated by the parliamentary elections in Egypt and Tunisia. The myths of the “Arab Spring,” with hopes for liberal democracy and tolerance for differing views and religions, have been replaced by the realities of a cold “Islamic Winter.”
The failure of western governments and powerful organizations claiming to promote human rights to invest in these societies is reflected in the meagre results. Human Rights Watch formed an alliance with the Gadhafi family that terrorized Libya, and collected money from wealthy Saudis in order to attack Israel. As a result, the few democracy activists in these countries remain isolated and have no impact. In this environment, there is little that outsiders can do to influence events. The revolutions are strictly internal Arab issues, and Israel, while not loved, is largely ignored and irrelevant.
Therefore, the best policy for Jerusalem is to keep a low profile and wait for the processes to play themselves out – which is exactly the approach being taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In terms of Israeli security, there is both good and bad news. On the positive side, the national armies and major terror groups are growing weaker as a result of the disintegration. In Egypt, the military has lost most of its power, and in Syria, factions of Bashar Assad’s rusting army and air force are fighting each other. It will take years for new rulers to restore a serious fighting force capable of attacking Israel directly, if they choose to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s strategic shield, provided by the Syrian army, is disintegrating, and Iran can only plug some of the holes. As a result, the Israeli military should be able to deter Hezbollah from attacking.
But the bad news is that the potential for increased terror attacks has grown. After the 1979 peace treaty, the Egyptian regime was careful to avoid military conflict with Israel, and for the most part, kept Hamas from using Sinai to plan and implement terror attacks against Israel.
Similarly, in the north, Syria kept the border along the Golan Heights quiet, instead encouraging the proxy war via Hezbollah. But as these regimes crumble, the potential for cross-border or missile attacks launched by terror groups will increase. As a result, Israeli security forces must redouble anti-terror capabilities, and be prepared to strike missile launchers before they are used.
Finally, these events have put the peace efforts with the Palestinians in perspective – this conflict is only one source of instability, and not the major factor. Even Israelis in the “peace camp” realize that an agreement, if it becomes feasible, would not ensure stability along Israel’s borders while the region continues to boil over.
As a result of these factors, the “new Middle East” that is emerging will be very different from the old one that Israel has faced for the past 63 years. Many options are open – some with opportunities, and others that will pose difficult challenges – and Israeli leaders will need to demonstrate a high degree of flexibility and intelligence in responding appropriately.