Lessons from a decade of ‘Arab Spring’ - Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher (December 21, 2020)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. While Israel teeters between new elections and more concessions by Benny Gantz that postpone them and leave Benjamin Netanyahu in power, the Middle East has been observing a painful anniversary. A decade ago, the ‘Arab Spring’ erupted. How profoundly has this affected Israel?

A. Israel’s relations with all of its neighbors, near and far, have been altered by these events. On the negative side, Iran has exploited the turmoil to penetrate deep into the Levant and become a neighbor on or near Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon and by supporting Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s strategic ally, the United States, is thinning its presence in the region, while Russia is returning.

Syria has been decimated, spawning Islamist threats and huge refugee waves. Lebanon (and more distant Iraq) are collapsing economically. All this suffering and anarchy is not conducive to regional stability.

On the positive side, because of Arab collapse, strategic cooperation with Egypt and Jordan has tightened dramatically. They and Israel share the same new/old enemies: Iran, militant Islam. And while people-to-people relations with these two close neighbors remain cold, the events of the past decade have prompted a series of more distant Arab states to warm up and ‘normalize’ relations, including at the security-strategic level.

Q. Let’s refresh our memories. What exactly happened?

A. On December 17, 2010, angry and depressed Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire. That triggered the chain of revolutions, civil wars and protests known as the ‘Arab Spring’. The unrest and suffering continue to this day.

Within weeks, popular protests broke out in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. Everywhere but Bahrain, where the Saudis and Emirates intervened militarily to save a fellow Sunni monarch, the protests either toppled the regime or degenerated into civil war. Neighbors from near and far intervened. In Libya, Yemen and Syria fighting continues to this day. A second phase has transpired recently in Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon, where popular protests have produced less violent regime change but no resolution of popular discontent.

Those are, in capsule form, the ‘facts on the ground’. The events informing and surrounding them at the regional and global strategic level are yet more far-reaching and challenging.

Q. For example

A. First, to be clear, this was not a ‘Spring’ in the 1848 European revolutionary sense of renewal and regeneration or like in the 1967-68 ‘Prague Spring’. So the name is wrong. Second, all the revolutions and civil wars have transpired in Arab states that are not monarchies. That hints at underpinnings embedded in Arab societal weakness and disunity. The Arab monarchies all survived because they provide stability and strong roots in tradition and religion and because some of them are so rich they can buy stability at home and among their poorer royal cousins.

The bottom line here is that, with the unstable exception of Tunisia, democracy has not triumphed in the Arab world as a consequence of revolution. Egypt offers the best example. A brief attempt at democracy in 2011 brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2012. Within a year, the army under General Sisi had deposed the Brethren and imposed a regime even more draconian than that of President Mubarak, whose heavy-handed rule catalyzed the Egyptian revolution.

Third, the Arab world appears to have learned over the past decade that the Palestinian issue is not the root cause of all its societal woes and may not even be worth fighting for. That is significant news for Israel, which has reaped benefits in the form of normalization.

Note, however, that this does nothing to prevent Israel from sliding down a slippery slope toward one-state apartheid. On the contrary, it accelerates that slide by removing pressure on Israel to do something about the Palestinian issue. The Arab world simply cares less about how this ends.

The Middle East changed in additional ways. The 'Arab center', where political, cultural, intellectual and military power was traditionally focused, moved from its historic locus in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo in the Arab heartland to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha in the oil-rich Gulf. Yet in stark contrast, the near-monopoly of real power in the Middle East that was held prior to 2011 by the non-Arab states of the region--Iran, Turkey, Israel--has only been reinforced by widespread Arab collapse. Turkey, more Islamist by the day and energized by Arab collapse, has staked out claims in Syria, Libya and the Mediterranean that potentially threaten Israeli Mediterranean energy interests.

The only possible exception to this determination regarding where regional power is concentrated may be the United Arab Emirates. There, a mere million Arabs (their economy served by eight million expatriate workers) appear to have learned to project hard and soft power skillfully as they exploit the opportunities afforded by Arab societal weakness. It is no accident that the Emirates have led the pack in recent months in normalizing with Israel.

Q. What have the US and Russia learned?

A. Putin's Russia is making a dramatic comeback in the Middle East. Since 2015 it has established a base in Syria and intervened militarily there and, by proxy, in Libya. Everywhere it is exploiting Arab revolution and conflict to its advantage as it projects power to the Southern Mediterranean and the Red Sea. It has done this on the cheap, both economically and in terms of paying a price at the global level.

In Syria, Russia is now Israel’s neighbor. Unlike in the Soviet era, however, Israel and Russia have so far managed to communicate strategically to their mutual benefit. Still, Russia as a neighbor is worrisome to Israel, if not downright intimidating.

In stark contrast, Arab revolution and fragmentation have merely hastened a gradual US military departure from the Middle East. Washington had good reasons well before the Arab Spring: it no longer needs Arab oil, the rise of China as a strategic challenge is more important, and ‘forever wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq need to be drawn down. Obama understood this before Trump.

All this worries Israel. So do the endless mistakes Washington has been making in the region. Here we begin with George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003--undoubtedly one of the catalysts for ensuing Arab disintegration eight years later. Bush’s mistake was compounded by three Obama administration decisions: to hasten Mubarak’s fall in Egypt and the rise there of the Muslim Brotherhood, to back out of punishing Syria’s Assad for gassing his own citizens, and to intervene militarily with NATO (‘leading from behind’) in Libya.

If those errors of strategic judgement put the Arab world on notice that it could not depend on the US, the Trump administration merely reinforced this impression with its on-again-off-again troop withdrawals from Iraq, Syria and Somalia and its refusal to respond in kind to Iranian military provocations. Indeed, Trump’s pressure campaign against Iran has only made the latter more militant.

Trump’s only ‘legacy’ in the region appears to begin with his radical downgrading of the Palestinian issue: the ‘deal of the century’, cutting all US-PLO ties, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That legacy concludes with the Trump/Kushner transactional deals with the UAE, Sudan and Morocco--normalization with Israel in return for weapons, removal from terrorism lists and South Sahara recognition.

The Palestinian part of the legacy will likely be reversed by President Biden. As for the rest, time will tell how stable it is. We have been there before: around 20 years ago a number of Arab states cut formal ties with Israel over the Palestinian issue.

Q. So, has the fallout from a decade of regional instability been positive or negative for Israel?

A. It is a very mixed bag.

Israel now faces a territorial and missile threat from Iran that would be far less acute if Syria had not fallen apart and Bashar Assad had not invited Iran in to help. There would be no Russian presence in Syria either. Turkey would have fewer opportunities to encroach on both Arab and Israeli interests. Nor might we confront the spectacle of NATO-member Turkey moving closer to Russia as its authoritarian leader Erdogan exploits Trump’s weakness for dictators in Ankara and Moscow.

On the other hand, the downgrading of the Palestinian issue in the eyes of an Arab world torn apart from within undoubtedly contributed to Israel’s normalization bonanza. But so did Trump, whose transactional calculations in Abu Dhabi and Rabat may or may not have been influenced by Arab fragmentation, which after all did not directly affect either.

Then too, it must be acknowledged that it was none other than Benjamin Netanyahu who years ago, long before Dec. 17, 2010, proclaimed that eventually the Arabs would realize that normalization with Israel need not be conditioned on resolution of the Palestinian issue. When the ‘Arab Spring’ erupted, and more so after Trump took office, Netanyahu redoubled his efforts in this direction with, it must be acknowledged, some recent success.

Q. So at least in the context of normalization, Israel benefited from the Arab Spring. . .

A. Yes, but. And it is a big ‘but’.

The core problem remains the Palestinian issue. Trump’s shunting it to the side and Arab complaints about Palestinian intransigence do not, in the long term, resolve it. Neither does the consequent collective will of the Israeli right-religious political mainstream led by Netanyahu to ignore that issue while spreading ever more settlements. One looks in vain for any discussion whatsoever of the Palestinian issue in the current descent into yet another round of Israeli electoral mayhem.

Even if the Biden administration somehow contrives to rank Palestine at a low priority level, this issue will not go away. Even if the Arab ‘normalizers’ connive to pay only lip-service to their Arab Peace Initiative obligation to demand a two-state solution before normalizing with Israel, the Palestinian issue won’t go away. The difference is that, following the Arab Spring and Trump’s four years, the slippery slope becomes increasingly Israel’s internal problem. Not America’s, and not the Arab world’s. The road to apartheid is now paved almost exclusively by Israel and the Palestinians it occupies.

In the long run, that is not good news.

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