The two things we know about a Middle East in flux, and what they mean for Israel

A Pew Poll released this week shows that more than half of all Egyptians would like to see the peace treaty with Israel annulled. Almost two-thirds indicated that they thought that the country's laws should be based on the Koran and about half felt it was "very important" that religious parties be part of the next government. It is further evidence that Egypt's push for democracy has been fueled as much by its decades-long conservative shift as it has been by its decades long exploitation by the Mubarak regime. It is a reminder that small-"l" political liberalism does not always beget the big-"L" Liberalism that many in the west had been hoping for.

It is also a reminder that for all the constant attention that the wave of unrest has attracted in the Middle East, we know as little or less today about what will happen next in Egypt or in Libya or in Tunisia or Yemen or in Syria or anywhere else in the region as we did when all this started in January. That's almost true anyway. We know two things. One: This is a watershed in the history of the region. And two: while we can't say who is likely to prevail, we can say with a fairly high degree of certainty that the governments in each of the affected countries in the region will be considerably weaker going forward.

Governments that change will -- whether they embrace democracy or successor autocracies -- be weaker than the strongmen they succeeded. Governments that hang on will be battered and weakened and made permanently uneasy by the unrest.

This will make it harder to get things done in the region, to hammer out deals with the West except those that involve essentially one-way hand-outs. But tough as it may be for Western diplomats, it is going to be much tougher for the Israelis.

Weak governments must carefully cultivate and maintain political bases. And in none of these countries is perceived softness or even openness to Israel seen as a political plus. Populist impulses will be strong through these impacted governments and as the Egypt poll illustrates, one thing almost certain to play well will be a renewed hard-line toward Israel.

This comes at a tough moment for the Israelis. Not only has the strategic landscape been remade around them, not only has the Arab Spring distracted the world from the potential threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program about which the Israelis have great concerns, but looming is the U.N. vote in September on Palestinian statehood. It is not only increasingly clear that the vast majority of the world's nations side with the Palestinians but even the Israeli's staunchest defenders like the United States have come to the conclusion internally that it is not a question of "if" but "how" and not a question of "when" but "how soon can it happen?"

For months the Netanyahu administration has been internally debating about how to deal with this and with every passing week, their conclusions of the past week are overtaken by new events. The current hubbub about whether or not Netanyahu will or should make a major address to the U.S. Congress is linked to an increasingly urgent sense by many in the Israeli government that Netanyahu needs to get out ahead of this Palestinian story and offer his own formula for peace. The Palestinians have been as deft diplomatically as they have been inept governing at home or managing their internal divisions. They are the ones almost universally perceived to be "on the side of history", to use one of the more popular phrases of the moment. Even the strong support for many Israelis for a Palestinian state was demonstrated at last week's Tel Aviv demonstration that involved the participation of 21 Israel Prize winners.

The situation could hardly be more difficult for Netanyahu. The pressure globally, in the region and at home is growing. His cabinet is battered by internal issues including the growing legal mess in which his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman finds himself. Israel's "best friend," the United States, is undergoing a sea-change in its views which is manifest in internal divisions within the administration about how to manage just about each and every issue pertaining to the Middle East... including the Israel-Palestine question.

Netanyahu has just weeks, at most a couple months, to determine the fate of his administration. Old stratagems won't work. Old rhetoric will fall dead to the ground before it reaches the ears of a single listener. Continuing to pursue without amendment his recent stance on settlements is a non-starter and effective will assure the world continues on its course to cut Israel as much as possible from this discussion about an issue that is central to its fate. To get ahead of the issue he must be seen to be offering a fair and reasonable plan to swiftly put into place a Palestinian state that has a chance of succeeding economically, socially and politically. Or at least he must offer a plan for how Israel will enable such a transformation. Naturally, he will be expected to argue in Israel's self-interest. But he must recognize that unless he seen to be taking a truly new tack, truly embracing the inevitable, his few friends in the world -- including the United States-- will find it very, very difficult to do anything but treat him as though he were already a historical relic, unsuited for the issues and the realities of the region today.


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