The reaction to the Arab revolts that began in 2011 was more skeptical in Israel than in other countries. This is because most Jewish Israelis agree that the net effect of the fundamental changes in the Arab world will be negative for Israel’s security. What Israelis do not agree about, however, is how the country should best respond to these changes. While there are those who argue that Israel should engage with its neighborhood in order to lessen its toxic image in the Arab world, many Israelis take the more hawkish view that the country should retreat and focus on enhancing its military capacity to counter future threats.
Although equipped with one of the most sophisticated intelligence gathering apparatuses in the world, Israel was just as surprised as the rest of the world when the Arab Spring erupted in February 2011. However, while most countries reacted with guarded hope and anticipation, Israel’s reaction was one of deep skepticism, laced with a certain fear and trepidation.
In one of his first public announcements in response to the Egyptian revolution, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned that the Arab revolutions may turn out to mirror that of Iran in 1979, in other words, the end result would most likely be Islamic, radical, anti-Western, and, most importantly, anti-Israel. In a major attempt to spread understanding about Israel’s dilemma, Netanyahu called together his ambassadors to Western countries and instructed them to emphasize the importance of the stability of the existing Arab regimes. In November 2011, in a “told-you-so” manner, he reminded the Israeli Knesset and the world that his warnings and predictions had indeed been fulfilled. The Arab transitions were neither democratic nor peaceful, and increasingly hostile to the West in general and Israel in particular. The Arab Spring, he said, had become an Arab Winter.
While it is clear that Netanyahu represents a side of Israeli politics that has been especially skeptical towards the changes in the Middle East, early public opinion polls showed that a majority of Jewish Israelis shared this perspective. And indeed, it is hard to deny that Israel is now less secure in its neighborhood than before. However, while most Israelis agree that the upheaval in the Middle East has had real negative security consequences for Israel, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them varies between two approaches that can be described as two schools of thought: the threat-dominated perspective and the opportunities perspective.
Although most Israelis agree that the Arab revolts have far-reaching consequences for Israel’s security, the understanding of those consequences and what should be done about them vary roughly along the Israeli left-right political spectrum. Those on the right, heavily represented in the current political establishment, focus almost exclusively on the “threat” coming from the rise in uncertainty in the region, and prescribe increased Israeli isolation and preparedness as a response. Those on the left, more commonly found in academic and intellectual circles, acknowledge the threats, but focus more on the opportunities that are brought by the change, and thus recommend engagement with the emerging regimes in order to increase Israel’s chances that the new Middle East will be a friendlier place.
The main areas of concern described in the full analysis are outlined on the map below:
For the full analysis of these two approaches and their policy implications, the full document can be downloaded from the website of the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, by clicking the thumbnail: