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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Click to expand image.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

In late May, even as U.S. and European leaders expressed hope that the revolutions unleashed in the Arab world would lead to broader democratization, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu darkly warned, "These hopes could be snuffed out, as they were in Tehran in 1979." Iran, of course, became a leader of the anti-Israel camp after the revolution and supports terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas against the Jewish state. Israelis fear that under new regimes Egypt and other states could, as they did in the past, sponsor terrorists to attack Israel. Israeli leaders' rhetoric has since softened, but their qualms remain. Israelis must put their fears aside: To fight terrorism effectively in the future, the Jewish state will have to work with the new regimes, and it cannot afford to reawaken old enmities.

Such a shift is hard for Israel, which worked with the region's dictators for many years. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens pointed out an unpleasant truth: "the two peace treaties that Israel concluded so far—the one with Egypt and the other with Jordan—were both signed with dictators: Anwar Sadat and King Hussein." Jordan shares intelligence with Israel about terrorist groups like al-Qaida and Hamas and polices its border with the West Bank, preventing infiltration. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt cracked down on Islamists sympathetic to Hamas and helped enforce the blockade of Gaza along its border. More recently, some Arab governments tacitly backed Israel when it warred against Hezbollah (seen by Arab regimes as an Iranian pawn) in 2006 and shed few tears when Israel hammered Hamas in the 2008-09 "Cast Lead" operation. Self-interest, not love for the Jewish state, motivated leaders in Egypt and Jordan, as they feared Palestinian and Islamist activism as a threat to their own power.

Islamist activists, including former jihadists, now enjoy free rein in Egypt. When Mubarak fell, many among the thousands of jihadist prisoners, including some of those convicted in the assassination of Anwar Sadat, were freed. Some of these radicals entered politics and are now calling for Egypt to look to Saudi Arabia as a model for its society. Even in Jordan and other countries where the Arab spring has faltered, regimes now fear, and thus are more likely to accommodate, popular opinion, which is vociferously anti-Israel. A 2010 poll found that almost 90 percent of Arabs saw Israel as "the biggest threat to you."

In the 1950s and '60s, Arab populations pushed their governments to give arms, training, and safe haven to Palestinian fighters. Israel's Arab neighbors both cracked down on these fighters and supported them, an uneasy balance that produced instability and even war as well as a high body count as a result of terrorism.

Today, support for terrorism may come in the form of things that are not done. A new government in Cairo may not stop weapons and, especially, fighters from going back and forth to Gaza. Fundraising and generating propaganda from Egyptian soil may also encounter little interference.

Some Arab leaders may even try to back violence to divert their restive publics. Already, in May and June 2011, as unrest swept across Syria, the regime there encouraged (some reports say coerced) Palestinians to march on Israel across the Syrian border into the Golan Heights, leading to more than a dozen deaths—Syria claims far more.

In Gaza, where Hamas rules, the Arab spring threatens to upend the uneasy truce, often honored only in the breach, that has emerged since Cast Lead ended. Hamas has at times launched rockets into Israel, and it remains hostile, but it has also often held to a cease-fire and cracked down on even more radical groups to do so. To ward off public criticism, Hamas may seek to play up its role as the leader of Palestinian resistance.

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.

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 at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.