July 16, 2013

Israel was an early skeptic about the so called “Arab spring”. In February of 2011, an eternity ago in 21st century Middle Eastern time, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the Knesset about the situation in Egypt. The hopes of people in the region and of observers in other places “are understandable”, Netanyahu said. This was at the time when President Mubarak still believed that he could remain in power by promising not to seek another presidential term. “All those who cherish human liberty, including the people of Israel, are inspired by genuine calls for reform and by the possibility that it will take place”, Netanyahu added. But as he was speaking about promises and hopes, democracy and liberal institutions, we could all see the looming “however” that was coming.

“However, this is not the only possible scenario”, Netanyahu continued, attempting to make the story of Egypt a part of the only story Netanyahu wants to tell – the story of Iran. “Because far away from Washington, Paris, London – and not so far from Jerusalem – is another capital in which there are hopes”. He was talking about Tehran.

Ultimately, the story of Egypt didn’t unfold in the exact manner Netanyahu was talking about. But he was still more right than wrong in his measured, cautious, and- well- pessimistic view of the developing crisis. “We are in a turbulent situation”, he said. “In such situations we must look around with our eyes wide open. We must identify things as they are, not as we'd like them to be. We must not try to force reality into a preconceived pattern. We must accept that a huge change is taking place, and while it is happening – keep a watchful eye”.

More than a year ago, the Spiegel reported about how “the majority of Israelis and their government [that] are not welcoming” the Arab upheaval. “Although they want democratic neighbors, they are afraid of the democratization process, especially its uncertainties, as well as the instability and loss of control. No one knows yet what the new Middle East will look like, but the government has already decided that it is better to curl up into a ball than explore its options”. Fast forward to current Egypt and its unresolved – irresolvable – crisis. Fast forward to bloody Syria, still under the clouds of war. Fast forward to the “spring” that turned into a “winter” and later into chaos: Israelis – the leadership and the people – can look in the mirror and say: yes, we were afraid and for a good reason.

And as for exploring the “options”, just read this article by two Israeli experts from three weeks ago, and see how foolish the idea of such explorations can become in no time. In “5 Arab spring opportunities for Israel” the number one advice is engaging with Morsi's Islamist government in Egypt. “Interestingly”, they wrote, “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”. Sensible lessons, reasonable analysis – if only the Morsi government were still there.

Thomas Friedman had similar misgivings about Israel’s reluctance to cease opportunities amid the stormy water. “What I can’t understand is doing nothing. Israel has an Arab awakening in its own backyard in the person of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority. He’s been the most radical Arab leader of all… His focus has been on building institutions… Israel’s best defense is to strengthen Fayyadism”. Yes – maybe, possibly, if only “Fayyadism” were still there. I don’t want to be misleading: Fayyad left his post a year and a half after Friedman’s article. Does anyone believe, though, that an Israeli attempt at “strengthening Fayyadism” eighteen months ago would have made a difference, would have altered the course of a Middle East tsunami? 

In other words: for 'options' to be explored and 'opportunities' to be taken, viability is a precondition. If, like sub-nuclear and unstable particles, these 'opportunities' barely materialize before they disappear, if chasing these options is like chasing a ghost, then the government of Israel understandably prefers to wait a bit, to pass until real opportunity emerges.

My point: Israelis – not the experts, the leadership – can feel vindicated. They knew better than most. They were right to be skeptical and dismissive when others were still elated by the first wave of street revolutions. But this shouldn’t make them too happy.

First, because if things had turned out differently it would have been better for everyone. Arab democracy truly would be better for everybody; and the current suffering is heartbreaking; and because the current uncertainty bodes future developments that are dangerous for the region and for Israel. Put differently: Being correct about a reality that is bad for you is better than being wrong about it, but it's hardly a consolation. 

But there’s also another reason not to celebrate Israeli soberness: the impact that such soberness – and the accompanied acknowledgment of it being justified – has on us Israelis. In recent years, Israelis have been looking at the world and at the region with a gloomy eye. They have become a gloomy bunch, growing accustomed to seeing danger and enemies under every tree and around every corner, and constantly preparing for doom. What happens in the Arab world reinforces Israeli pessimism. And pessimism, while necessary and warranted at times, is not exactly an enchanting trait. Not even when looking in the mirror.

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