Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Israel and the ‘Arab Spring’ Aftermath: New Middle East Dynamics (November 15, 2021)


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: It was plain from the start that the Arab Spring that erupted in 2011 was not at all a ‘spring’. But what is its ‘aftermath’? And what are the new Middle East dynamics?

A: It’s hard to recall a time when events in the Middle East seemed so fluid, so flexible. One reason is clearly that the revolutions that began in 2011--in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen--shook up the region, and the dust is still settling. Another is the more recent process of American military withdrawal, from Afghanistan and to a lesser but significant extent from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and (withdrawing air defense systems) Saudi Arabia.

Today, around ten years after the Arab Spring unrest began, there is still a violent revolutionary dynamic in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Outside powers have intervened militarily on the ground: Iran, Russia, Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia. More recently, new revolutionary unrest has erupted in Sudan and Lebanon, two countries that were not involved in the original ‘spring’. And almost everywhere, there is an Israeli angle.


Q: Let’s start with two of the most turbulent Arab states today, Lebanon and Sudan. Neither experienced a revolution in early 2011. Both are now in a state of chaos. Where is the Israeli angle?

A: Some 70 percent of Lebanese have no income, hospitals are collapsing, and food and water are in short supply. Iranian influence, via Hezbollah, is growing, while traditional Persian Gulf patrons, led by Saudi Arabia, are boycotting the country.

One neighbor, Syria, is not much better off than Lebanon itself. But Lebanon’s other neighbor, Israel, is prosperous and relatively tranquil. Small wonder, then, that more and more Lebanese, beginning with President Aoun’s daughter, are calling for the country to follow in the footsteps of Morocco and the UAE and normalize relations with Israel. The United States is reportedly trying tentatively to mediate. But Washington’s waning military presence in the region negatively affects its influence.

Israel has offered to help Lebanon with food aid. Its biggest worry is that the growing misery and unrest there will spill over the two countries’ border in the form of aggression by Hezbollah, designed to divert Lebanese domestic attention to an external ‘enemy’.

Meanwhile Sudan, one of four Arab countries involved in normalization with Israel under the Abraham Accords, has witnessed a military coup d’etat that has cancelled a process of democratization. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, autocratic neighbors that apparently feared a democratic Sudan so close to home, support the generals in Khartoum. Israel, which is not averse to dealing with authoritarian states in the region (that’s essentially all there are) and which never got very far with normalization with Sudan before the coup, has placed everything on hold.


Q: Speaking of Egypt, how are its ties with Israel?

A: Egyptian President Sisi is exploiting the general state of flux in the region to upgrade relations with Israel. Visits by Israelis to Cairo to discuss strategic affairs, beginning with Prime Minister Bennet, are publicized by the Egyptians. Israel has agreed to additional Egyptian force deployments near its border with Sinai, to fight Islamist terrorist. Egyptian Intelligence Minister Abbas Kamel is now the key mediator between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Pioneering bilateral hi-tech initiatives are in the air. As Kamel told an Israeli journalist recently in Glasgow, referring to Israel’s Bennet-Lapid coalition, “This is a government that you can work with. . . . we would be happy if it survives.”


Q: And speaking of improved relations with immediate neighbors, Jordan comes to mind. PM Bennet has visited there openly too. But how do you explain King Abdullah II’s invitation to Mansour Abbas of Raam, the Arab Islamist party in Bennet’s coalition?

A: Raam is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to the Hashemite Kingdom. But Abbas is a key member of Bennet’s coalition, where he studiously avoids Islamist provocations or propaganda and sticks exclusively to the formidable task of improving the socio-economic lot of Israel’s Arab population. Nor does Raam challenge Jordan’s role as guardian of Islam on the Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif. Abbas has also emerged as a master politician.

So Raam and Abbas are something of an anomaly in Arab terms. Jordan’s king apparently wanted to take Abbas’s measure. It’s fair to say that Mansour Abbas is in many ways a symbol of the flexibility and revolutionary dynamic that currently characterize the Middle East. For better or for worse: in the case of Abbas, for better.


Q: In contrast to Lebanon and Sudan, where violence and chaos are taking place post-Arab Spring, Syria and Libya went through violent revolutions in 2011 that are essentially still ongoing. Are Israel’s fortunes changing with regard to either or both?

A: Israel’s (alleged) air and missile attacks on Iran and its proxies in Syria continue, but with a twist. Russia and Syria itself appear to be objecting less, apparently because they too want to diminish Iran’s military presence to Israel’s north. This seemingly corresponds with, first, greater confidence in Moscow and Damascus that the Assad regime can retake control over Syrian territory without Tehran’s help and, second, a sense that Iran, with its Shiite Islamist ideology, is becoming a liability, particularly when it comes to turf wars over strategic Syrian territory and population.

Meanwhile the Emirates, always a flexible strategic player in the region, have renewed relations with Assad’s regime. Lest we forget, the UAE has become a quasi-ally of Israel.

(Note that regarding Syria these are preliminary and tentative assessments. And that Iran, via Hezbollah, remains a major negative player in Lebanon.)

Turning to Libya, it recently emerged that two prominent candidates for ascending to a national leadership role, whether electorally or militarily, have Israeli connections. One is Khalifa Haftar, warlord-in-chief of the eastern part of the country. His son allegedly visited Israel recently to purchase arms. The other is Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, son of Moammar Qaddafi. The son met with Israelis (yours truly included) here and there back in the good old pre-2011 days. The father’s demise at the hands of NATO in 2011 ushered in the decade of violence that we are still witnessing.


Q: Iran means militant Islam--the Shiite variety. Then there is the Sunni version of militant Islam: Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood and, much closer to home for Israel, the Raam Arab party and Hamas in Gaza. . .

A: We have touched on Raam and Hamas. But Turkey deserves a special word in the Israeli connection. As this is begin written, the Erdogan government is holding an Israeli tourist couple on trumped-up espionage charges after they innocently photographed a prominent Istanbul palace. Their mistake was to tag the snapshot with Erdogan’s name in the family digital conversation. Turkish intelligence intercepted the message and Erdogan concluded he had found the perfect victims for an anti-Israel move. He labeled the couple, who were celebrating a birthday in Istanbul, Mossad spies!

Why? Erdogan’s anger at Israel continues to simmer since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which 10 Turkish Islamist activists were killed on their way to Hamas in Gaza. The increasingly Islamist Erdogan has provided shelter and asylum to both Hamas activists and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and has sought to spread Turkish influence over Islamic institutions in East Jerusalem.

Most recently, Turkey rounded up Palestinians allegedly recruited by the Mossad to spy on Arab students in Turkey. The Israeli tourist couple may have been detained as retaliation. It doesn’t help that their home town is Modiin, the 2,000-year old home base of the Macabees soon to be celebrated at Hanukah--a name that in modern Hebrew also means ‘intelligence’, as in ‘military intelligence’. Then too, Erdogan has found a convenient foil with which to distract the Turkish public from his failing health and falling approval ratings.

Turkey and Israel are booming trading partners. Israeli tourists flood Turkey. The two countries have sporadically patched up political relations over the past decade, then fallen out again. Turkey is an expansionist regional power whose military and proxy presence reaches to Syria, Libya, Sudan and Qatar. Israel has every interest in navigating its way out of the current mess cooked up by Erdogan, with minimal damage to bilateral ties.


Q: Is there an American connection here?

A: Despite or alongside Washington’s drive to reduce its military profile in the region, there is still an American strategic connection virtually everywhere. Israel has no problem coordinating with Washington its interests and/or involvement in Lebanon and Sudan, Syria and Egypt, Turkey and Gaza.

But Washington’s biggest effort in the region in the months ahead is likely to concern a renewed JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran. If this happens, it will leave Israel anxious and suspicious. The Saudis and Emirates will also be anxious, but they have already begun hedging their bets through strategic contacts with Iran. As for Israel, Bennet has already made it clear that he will not go the Netanyahu route of provocative opposition. Meanwhile, improved Israeli relations with Egypt and Jordan and an enhanced military situation regarding Syria could give Israel additional leverage in discussing Iran with the Biden administration.

In a Middle East characterized by a dynamic of flux and flexibility, an Iran nuclear deal will stir an already boiling pot. Yet, needless to say, it could turn down the flame elsewhere.


Q: What is the fate of democracy and human rights in all this revolutionary change?

A: Tunisia, the only Arab Spring country to emerge from revolution with democratic institutions, is now ruled by a semi-dictator, backed by the army. Lebanon’s democracy is on life support along with all the country’s institutions. Turkey’s democracy has been seriously compromised by President Erdogan’s dictatorial tendencies. Iran remains a highly controlled Islamist semi-democracy. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas in Gaza, both remain authoritarian entities. Iraqi democracy, a doubtful legacy of American occupation, is touch and go, with Shiite Islamists--some of them violent Iranian lackeys--prominent players. All the other Middle East countries are autocracies.

Only in Israel can democracy be deemed to have been enhanced. A megalomaniacal prime minister has been removed from power. An Arab Islamist party has claimed a prominent role in governance.

Yet the West Bank occupation remains in all its anti-democratic disgrace. Here what has changed in the course of the past ten years is that the occupation has deepened--more settler land-grabs, smarter Israeli surveillance. Yet the Arab world, with its multiple revolutionary dynamics and the Abraham Accords, is becoming increasingly indifferent.