“The Corner of Rothschild and Tahrir,” reads one of the posters at the site where Israel’s summer of social protests began—on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, which has become the movement’s tent-city HQ. Few of the protest leaders would flinch at acknowledging the inspiration they drew from the Arab Awakening, but it is a new, challenging and often uncomfortable feeling for many Jewish Israelis to consider the surrounding Arab world as providing a spark worth emulating. Now Israel’s governing coalition has to add a domestic social challenge to the already considerable headache posed by the regional upheavals of 2011.
After decades of near-hegemonic Israeli strategic supremacy in the Middle East, the ground is shifting. For Israel’s leaders, the Arab Awakening and the removal of Mubarak represents the collapse of a key support structure in the edifice that maintains Israel’s regional posture. That edifice had been fraying for some time. Yet with Israel unwilling or unable to relinquish its control over and occupation of Palestine, it was a system of conflict management that had proven to be remarkably resilient. Undemocratic Egypt was that system’s linchpin. In fact, only an undemocratic Egypt could play this role, indifferent and dismissive as the regime was toward public opinion and able to pursue policies, both at home and abroad, widely perceived as being an affront to Egyptian dignity.
Every country needs a strategy for managing its external relations, especially in the near abroad. Israel’s predicament in this respect is especially challenging. Born as an unusual movement combining religious and historical claims to land with modern aspirations of state-building and communal preservation, Zionism was initially branded by most in the region as a colonial project, a sense that Israel has fed with its expansionist and expulsionist approach to the indigenous population. Unfortunately for Israel, that indigenous population has ethnic and religious ties to a large population throughout the surrounding region. Nevertheless, Israel managed to adapt, pursuing whatever great power or regional alliances were available, making itself useful to the United States as a cold war ally.
Long after it became clear that the Oslo peace process would not deliver Palestinian freedom, rights or sovereignty, the structures established by it and the opportunities they have forged for Israel have endured. They were kept afloat by donor assistance, by the difficulties entailed in dismantling the Palestinian Authority and, crucially, by the stamp of legitimacy that only Egypt could confer. The impact of the Arab Awakening on Israel’s leaders must be understood first and foremost against this backdrop.
A mapping of Israel’s geostrategic priorities cannot be reduced exclusively to the Palestinian issue, but it is the pre-eminent feature on that map. The wars of Israel’s founding and early decades were a function of the Palestinian conflict, including the 1982 Lebanon War and Israel’s prolonged occupation of the south of that country. Even the separate peace treaty with Egypt signed in 1979 had to include a “framework” for broader peace, one that provided for Palestinian self-governance, the withdrawal of Israel’s military government and recognition of Palestinians’ “legitimate rights.” Indeed, Israel’s failure to implement those provisions is increasingly being discussed by Egyptians in the context of their own continued adherence to the treaty. When Israel has sought to play an open role in advancing regional alliances opposite Iran, as it did under the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, it could do so only in the context of perceived progress on Palestine. Even the deterioration in Israel’s relations with a once vital strategic ally, Turkey, can be traced primarily to developments on the Palestinian issue, most prominently the Israeli army’s killing last year of nine Turkish nationals on board a ship seeking to break the Gaza blockade. Quite simply, Israel cannot have a strategy for managing its regional posture without having a Palestinian strategy, and today it no longer has one.