Sharing a boat as they float through the Middle East’s ongoing transformation, Israel has faced the same crunch-time decision as America - ride the movement out in front or try to decelerate it from behind. While U.S. officials mix selective optimism with silence in an attempt to slow revolutions to a manageable speed, Israel has gone virtually silent as the region flips beneath it. A common concern in Washington is that two months just undid 20 years of counter-terrorism policies.
Israel suffers from the same anxiety.
These worries notwithstanding, the isolated allies also enjoy an equal opportunity to reverse course and support a field of democratic movements. They did, after all, inspire the oppressed to rise up by suppressing them, and most peoples haven’t outright rejected U.S. involvement. Contrary to the notion that America should "keep it about them," a defense adopted by some Washington pundits to excuse President Barack Obama’s sluggish and impersonal response, protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen call for varying levels of U.S. assistance. Arguing that America can’t interfere ignores the reality that Washington already interferes; inaction is impossible when supporting the current regime in power.
Although the opportunity hasn’t been fully exploited, revolution in the Middle East now offers America a chance to paint a new image of itself for the 21st century, one that aligns with its democratic heritage.
Israel finds itself in a similar "sink or swim" position. Blamed for much of the repression in Egypt, it too stood to gain by reforming its policy towards the Palestinians. Officials claimed to realize the opportunity to lock Hamas, Syria, and Iran outside of a pure democratic uprising. Israel’s ongoing silence, however, has been attributed to fear of all change. Considered a key instigator in the region, Israel possessed no alternative to getting out of the way, which in turn drove a feverish strategy to mitigate revisions to the Middle East’s status quo.
And now, instead of alleviating its political and security concerns, Israeli leadership just dug themselves into a deeper hole by playing the endangered “terror” card. Doesn’t look like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu learned much from Hosni Mubarak’s demise.
Rather than wield Muslim revolution as proof of Israel’s need to reach an equitable solution with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has hyped the uncertainty of democracy into his new bogeyman. Instead of announcing his intent to negotiate fairly, Netanyahu overlooked the Jordan Valley and declared, "Our security border is here, on the Jordan River. In any future situation, in any future arrangement, the Israeli Defense Force must stay here. If this was true before the major unrest shaking the Middle East, it is doubly true today."
Netanyahu’s statements apparently form part of the “peace initiative” he’s developed, one set to offer a provisional state with 60% of the West Bank, temporary borders, and a neighboring Israeli army. This “initiative” has already been rejected by the Palestinians, fearing that a “provisional" state could become permanent after failing to reach agreements on borders, refugees, and Jerusalem.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, insists, "Israel is making a big mistake if it believes that it can keep our land forever. Israeli policy that tries to wriggle out of the two state solution will keep the region in an endless state of conflict."
Like his demand for troops on the Jordan River, Netanyahu’s brashness is nothing new. Neither is his poor spin. That’s left Defense Minister Ehud Barak to attempt a softer spin, explaining to The Wall Street Journal, "It's a historic earthquake... a movement in the right direction, quite inspired. It's a movement of the Arab societies toward modernity."
Except Netanyahu’s fundamental contradictions shine through. During February meetings with U.S. officials, four months removed from the latest collapse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Barak warned that Israel couldn’t seek new pledges of military aid without making a “daring” peace offer. Without the slightest indication of change, Israel is now exploiting its “insecurity” to extract additional demands from the Palestinians and Washington. A provisional state is suddenly “daring” enough, and now Barak needs “help dealing with potential threats arising from the turmoil in the Arab world.”
He then cites an Egyptian official who recently told him, "We're going to have a really open election... Civic parties will hire advisers from the US and Europe and find immediately that what can bring them voters is hostility to America and Israel.”
Oh no - an open election in Egypt. Better stock more arms for Iran and Syria. Give them to IDF troops on the Jordan River, they can fire at a Palestinian military that Israel rejects in the first place. Then comes Barak’s coup de grâce: the region needs a strong Israel to guide it.
"The issue of qualitative military edge for Israel becomes more essential for us, and I believe also more essential for you," he tells Americans. "It might be wise to invest another $20 billion to upgrade the security of Israel for the next generation or so... A strong, responsible Israel can become a stabilizer in such a turbulent region."
Because massive quantities of U.S. aid have made Israel such a responsible, stabilizing force in the region. So confident is Barak that his aides, possibly fearing a backlash, have already denied his interview remarks.
Even though the State Department responded with identical language: “Each and every security assistance request from the Israeli government is evaluated in light of our policy to uphold Israel’s qualitative military edge.”
Israel’s breach of silence wasted no time devolving into a comedy rather than statecraft. Instead of facing the inevitable and rearranging its stance towards the Palestinians, Israel is attempting to drape itself in democracy as it hardens its political and military positions. Doing so will maintain the local stalemate throughout the Middle East’s revolutionary cycle, potentially placing Israel at a greater disadvantage once Egypt shifts regional support to the Palestinians. And America continues to enable this status quo through political-speak, hoping “to narrow gaps and to find a way for the parties to return to direct negotiations."
"If and when Israel offers its own thoughts on how to move the process forward, we will be listening attentively," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters on Monday. "We do not know what the prime minister and his government are thinking at the present time."
The way to narrow gaps is by rejecting an unrealistic, weak “initiative,” for lack of a better word, and installing a sense of balance in the region. By rejecting Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory as illegal, by rejecting any Israeli military presence in the West Bank, by supporting East Jerusalem as the capital of a permanent Palestinian state, by dissolving Gaza's blockade, and by blocking U.S. aid until Netanyahu drops his totalitarian view of a two-state solution. Essentially, by convincing Israel that a just and equal resolution to the Palestinians’ plight offers the only security from revolution.
Israel really has gone rogue if Washington doesn’t know what Netanyahu is thinking - and risks even greater, self-created insecurity as a result.