Have the Arab uprisings made Israel less secure?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 11 2011 4:42 PM

Have the Arab Uprisings Made Israel Less Secure?

Only if Israel's leaders fail to make some key adjustments.

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Perhaps the biggest danger for Israel, however, is within the West Bank. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is regularly referred to as a moderate because he seeks peace with Israel, but at home he is just another run-of-the-mill Arab autocrat. The resurgence of popular pressure on Abbas could threaten security cooperation. Although Israel's military and intelligence services have a heavy presence in the West Bank, much of the day-to-day spying and arrests are done by the U.S.-trained Palestinian security services. In 2010, a police officer bragged to the International Crisis Group, "I look at myself in the mirror with pride, as I know that what I am doing is the only way to an independent Palestinian state."

If peace talks continue to falter, however, his cooperation will be viewed as collaboration. We've seen this movie before, and the ending is deadly. In the 1990s, the glory days of negotiations, Palestinian security services cooperated, albeit fitfully, with Israel. When talks fell apart at Camp David in 2000, service members often eagerly joined the second intifada to reduce the taint of collaboration.

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It is unrealistic to expect Israel to change its policies enough to win over Arab publics—the Jewish state is hated too much. But Israel can keep itself and its counterterror efforts off the radar screen so that cooperation does not become a political football. An easy step is rhetorical. Israeli leaders should emphasize that the new regimes are potential friends and not lament the passing of despised dictators, even if they were Israeli allies.

Harder steps involve changing Israeli counterterrorism policy. In 1997, under a previous Netanyahu government, Mossad tried to kill Hamas leader Khaled Mishal in Jordan, and the botched attempt enraged King Hussein. Today, similar operations on allied territory would be even more disastrous, since Israel's friends, or more accurately its frenemies, might lack the political strength to continue counterterrorism cooperation in the face of inevitable public outrage. Similarly, Israel should recognize that Hamas' political need to stress its resistance credentials will make it less likely to back down from a confrontation with Israel. Any escalation should be done carefully and with the awareness that a conflict spiral, not renewed deterrence, may result.

Finally, and most difficult for Israel, progress on peace is vital for counterterrorism. Arab governments must be able to tell their people that they are ending fundraising efforts or other support for terrorism intended to help the Palestinians get their own state. In the West Bank, Palestinian security forces must feel they are patriots, not collaborators, when they arrest Hamas members and others fighting Israel.

Change is sweeping the Arab world, whether Israel wants it or not. If Israel fails to change its policies, its worst fears are more likely to come true.

Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.