The Arab Spring was initially embraced with much enthusiasm and hope in the West. In Israel, however, it has been generally perceived as a threat to national security. Israel’s official policies towards the Arab Spring reflect these concerns. But recent regional developments should not be seen only through a negative lens. They also offer important opportunities for Israel’s foreign policy and for its regional standing, which Israeli decision makers should act upon.
1. Engaging with Political Islam: In contrast to alarming predictions, the new Islamic regimes have thus far been moderate or pragmatic in their policies, including their attitudes to Israel. This opens opportunities for Israel to engage with these new regimes. Egypt, the most important regional country for Israel, has upheld the peace treaty under Muslim Brotherhood leadership; President Mohamed Morsi appointed a new ambassador to Israel, exchanged greetings with President Peres, expressed his interest in assisting Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, and cooperated with Israel in reaching an informal agreement with Hamas, and in his efforts to fight terrorist elements in the Sinai Peninsula.
Interestingly, under an Islamic regime, Egypt has more leverage than did the previous Hosni Mubarak regime, to exert on Hamas in its dealings with Israel. No less important is the fact that a treaty honored by the Brotherhood sends a message across the Muslim world that peace with Israel is not anathema. Though Israeli-Egyptian formal relations will probably remain cold, behind-the-scenes contacts (particularly between the security establishments) will likely continue to flourish.
2. Benefitting from the crisis in Syria: The Syrian enigma can, in the long run, bring to power a Sunni legitimate regime that may be more amenable to peaceful relations to Israel. In the more immediate future, it signals the weakening of the anti-Israeli axis, led by Iran and Syria. Iran’s ability to project power on Israel’s immediate environment has undoubtedly declined. The Syrian crisis also offered Israel opportunities to improve ties with Jordan and Turkey. These opportunities have already been partially exploited over the past months. Israel and Jordan are tacitly coordinating their policy vis-à-vis the Syrian front, while Israel and Turkey are in the midst of mending their relations.
3. A New Sunni Coalition: The Arab Spring has changed the balance of power between the Sunna and Shi’a. The Iranian role in the Middle East has received a blow. Consequently, a new Sunni coalition seems to be emerging in the region, with Turkey and Egypt being central players, backed by the moderate monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco. This Sunni axis and Israel have several common interests in the region: diminishing the Iranian nuclear challenge; containing the looming threats from Syria; and ending the stalemate on the Palestinian front, which might deteriorate into a third Intifada.
4. Engaging with the Arab Street: In the past, Israel has dealt mainly with Arab elites. Yet, the Arab Spring accentuated the role of the masses. Reaching out to them—be they secular or Islamic—is difficult for Israel. Yet, because of their growing importance, Israel should attempt—publicly or behind the scenes—to do just so. The Arab Spring empowered the common people and created an opportunity for self-expression of groups and communities. In this “new” Arab world, there is growing curiosity and readiness to challenge the conventions of the old regimes. These circumstances might just enable a new discourse on Israel and with Israelis. Progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track is a key to making best use of this opportunity.
5. Promoting Peace: The Arab Spring has put on hold the possibility of reaching peace with Syria. The Israeli-Palestinian track remains the only possible track for negotiations. In the absence of a bi-lateral breakthrough, Israel should use the Arab Peace Initiative (API) to break the ice. The allegation that changes of regimes following the Arab Spring has rendered the API meaningless is untrue. The 2013 summit of the Arab League clearly re-affirmed the API, and the results of the meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Arab League leaders in May 2013 have made this even more evident.
The Arab Spring—in contrast to the prevailing Israeli view—does not only offer threats but provides opportunities as well. Israeli decision makers should take advantage of these developments in order to tap into regional processes and introduce a change in the traditional Israeli policy toward the Middle East, which has thus far been characterized by a policy of “prevention” rather than “initiation.”