By Barry Rubin
The more I think about Israel’s security situation at this moment, the better it looks. Obviously, this is counter-intuitive given the media bias, academic distortions, and campaigns for sanctions of various kinds. And, of course, Israel starts from a basis of facing far more security challenges than any other modern state. Still, by Israeli standards the outlook is good.
It’ll take a while to list all of the factors so let’s get started while the inkwell is still full.
On the surface, the “Arab Spring” along with the surge of revolutionary Islamism certainly looks bad but let’s examine the shorter-term implications. By reentering a period of instability and continuing conflict within each country, the Arabic-speaking world is committing a self-induced setback. Internal battles will disrupt Arab armies and economies, reducing their ability to fight against Israel. Indeed, nothing could be more likely to handicap development than Islamist policies.
While one shouldn’t depend too much on expecting Arab regimes to be too busy dealing with domestic transformation to want to stage foreign adventures against Israel, this is far more true than in past decades. And even if they would like to attack Israel they are less able to do so effectively given their disrupted societies, weakened armies, uncertain alliances, and lack of a Western sponsor.
Every Arabic-speaking country is likely to be wracked by internal violence, conflict, disorder, and slow socio-economic progress for years, even decades, to come.
Westerners are going to be disillusioned as reform stalls; the oppression of women increases; and Islamism produces unattractive partners. True, the Western left romanticizes Islamism but the number of people persuaded that these regimes are more attractive than Israel will be less as what Marxism traditionally described as “clerical-fascist” movements flourish.
Moreover, for Turkey and Iran the last year has been a disaster for their regional power ambitions. With rising Arab Sunni Islamist movements in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, Sunni Arabs see no need to turn to non-Arab Turks and non-Arab, non-Sunni Persians.
Turkey’s influence is limited to northern Iraq and, thanks largely to the Obama Administration’s backing, with the Syrian opposition. And if Syria became either Sunni Islamist or more moderate democratic, Damascus would quickly dispense with any need for Turkish patronage.
As for Iran, it has lost virtually all of its non-Shia Muslim assets, notably Hamas. Again, Sunni Arab Islamists are not going to follow Tehran’s lead while Sunni Arab countries don’t want to yield leadership of “their” Middle East to Tehran.
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Therefore, the big Middle East conflict of this era will be Sunni-Shia, not Arab-Israeli. But a series of conflicts have broken out all along the Sunni-Shia borderland as the two blocs vie for control of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain.
In addition, the Syrian civil war is wrecking that country and will continue to paralyze it for some time to come. When the dust settles, any new government is going to have to take a while to manage the wreckage, handle the quarreling, diverse ethnic-religious groups, and rebuild its military. In Lebanon, a dominant Hizballah, trying to hold onto power and worrying about the fate of its Syrian patron, doesn’t want a confrontation with Israel.
Then there are the surviving traditionalist regimes—Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the five other Gulf emirates—who know the main threat to them is from Iran and revolutionary Islamists at home, not Israel. In fact, they realize, Israel is a kind of protector for them since it also opposes those who want to put their heads on the chopping block.
An extremely important point to note is how completely Arabs, and especially Palestinians, threw away the greatest opportunity they’ve ever had to gain more U.S. support and widen the cracks between Washington and Jerusalem into a chasm. If properly motivated, the Obama Administration was ready to become the most actively pro-Palestinian government in American history, to offer more concessions to the Palestinian Authority (PA), and to put more pressure on Israel than ever seen before.
Instead, they refused to cooperate with Obama and rejected his initiatives. The PA wasted Obama’s entire term in refusing even to negotiate with Israel. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the PA repeatedly showed the U.S. government that it was the intransigent party. And even if American officials would never publicly admit this, they certainly had to give up as a result.
I provide this list not to rejoice at the misfortunes of others, even those who are hostile, because their people are the real victims. But these misfortunes are the result of decisions they made. This is the reality of the Middle East today.
On the other side has been Israel’s dramatic success in terms of economic progress. The country has become a world leader in high-technology, medicine, science, computers, and other fields. It has opened up new links to Asia. The discovery of natural gas and oilfields promise a massive influx of funds in the coming years.
And despite the usual internal quarrels (social protests, debates over drafting religious students, nasty flaps over personalities, and minor corruption scandals) Israel is basically a stable and united (where it counts) country. The idea that Israel is menaced by the failure to get official peace with the Palestinians is a staple of Western blather but has no big impact in reality.
Of course, there are threats—Iran getting deliverable nuclear weapons; Egypt becoming belligerent—but both lie in the future and there are constraining factors. In Iran’s case, there is external pressure and problems actually building weapons; for Egypt, the army as well as the balance of force constrains the radical Islamists. And if there are conflicts, Israel is well able to defend itself.
Foreign editorial writers may never admit it; foreign correspondents may thunder doom, but nonetheless Israel and its security are in good shape.