“Winter is on my head, but eternal spring is in my heart,” wrote the novelist Victor Hugo. That pretty much sums up Israel’s current predicament.
President Shimon Peres spoke for the county’s heart in April, back when the Arab Spring was, to use Rilke’s zestful words, “blooming most recklessly” and everyone marvelled at that “unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.” Peres was elated:
A great revolt has been initiated by young people and women, to gain freedom, bread and hope. Israel is watching with great expectation. … Those reactionary forces, that would hijack their countries back down the path of radicalism, are also the enemies of peace with Israel. That is why we hope our neighbors will choose to join the family of democratic nations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Al-Arabiya on July 21st and said, “I hope that we could sit down one day and I could tell you that Israel is not merely not the only democracy in the Middle East, it’s one of many Arab democracies. I recognize this may take time. I recognize it may have its ups and downs. But this would eb a wonderful thing. Why? Because if there’s genuine democracy in the Arab world, in the Arab countries, then there will be genuine peace.”
And what of those 400,000 Israelis who marched for social justice (one-tenth of the population that could have marched, note)? They expressed their sense of identity with the young idealists of the Arab Spring at every opportunity. Tongue in cheek it may have been, but the chant “Mubarak, Assad, Bibi Netanyahu!” spoke to the protestors’ deep identification with their insurgent neighbours.
Bitter it is then, that “winter” is now about Israel’s head.
Within the last few weeks, gathering threats to Israel at the micro, meso, and macro levels have begun to reinforcing each other in the most alarming ways.
Micro-level threats. Long able to conduct border raids, kidnappings, and increasingly advanced rocket attacks on Southern Israel, splinter groups in Gaza (Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees), now better armed, proved at Eilat on August 18th that they can now mount full-scale terrorist outrages. Armed by Iran, they exploit a relatively lawless Egyptian Sinai, where a terror infrastructure has established itself—playing on the turmoil of the revolution to transfer arms into the Gaza Strip and launch attacks on the natural gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel.
Meso-level threats. The Arab Spring has given new openings to anti-Israel populism. At the same time, vying political cadres who lack the authority of incumbency, or as yet the legitimacy of elections, feel they can’t resist “the street.” The first time the Israeli Embassy was breached and the flag burnt, the culprit was not arrested but hailed a national hero and given a house. That set the tone. Two weeks later, as a bigger mob with darker intentions besieged the same embassy, the head of the Supreme Council, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, would neither move against the crowds nor take calls from Netanyahu or Defense Minister Ehud Barack. The siege may well have been as much an attack on the police soccer fans, the ultras from the Ahly FC, as well as an expression of anger toward the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for the slow pace of change and the absence of an electoral timetable. But it came out as murderous rage against Israel.
Macro-level threats. The Arab Spring is a “political earthquake of historic proportions,” said Netanyahu. The rumbling has upset the regional balance of power and cast doubt on the “traditional cornerstones in Israel’s national security doctrine,” according to Michael Herzog. For all the inspiring presence of new political forces fighting for freedom and democracy, the direction of the revolutions remain unclear. Much of the region lacks a tradition of democracy or civil societies with the capacity to guarantee a smooth transition to democracy. What is does have is regional powers vying for regional hegemony and well-organized Islamist movements.
As the old order cracks it seeks to divert anger into anti-Israeli populism. Some new political forces have the same idea, stepping on Israel to reach higher. Swathes of the region remain in thrall to an anti-Semitic mind-set produced by decade upon decade of virulent anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic propaganda. Conspiratorialism is ubiquitous—75 percent of Egyptians do not believe Arabs were responsible for 9/11. Israeli historian Benny Morris has suggested that a resurgent Islam is “spreading like a brushfire” within Israel’s borders, across the Palestinian territories, and throughout the region. He fears the spread of an Islamism with “a hard core of anti-Zionism usually accompanied by anti-Semitic overtones.” This is surely overstated, but the resurgence of open displays of bigotry remains undeniable. On August 28th, the popular Egyptian weekly October on carried a mock-up of Netanyahu dressed in an SS uniform, with a Hitler mustache, making the Nazi salute.
The threats combine. In the most dangerous development for Israel, these multi-level threats have clearly become synergistic, reinforcing each other. The very act of repelling one threat seems only to make another loom larger. For example, in hot pursuit of the terrorists from Gaza (the micro-threat), who entered Israel from the lawless Sinai to kill 11 at Eilat, Israel accidentally killed five Egyptian security guards, which in turn sent the mob to the Israeli Embassy. The Egyptian regime, fearful of its own position, playing to populism (the meso threat), left the embassy staff to their fate for six hours. Only direct US intervention averted a slaughter. And now there is talk—for now, only talk—of looking again at the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. “Cold treaties” made between states and regimes must now take their chances with the people. The actions of a fragment taken at the micro-level now have the potential to destabilize the very architecture of Israeli security at the macro level.The role of the flotilla activists in sparking a crisis in Israel-Turkish relations is another example of this synergy.
And into all this, add the unilateral Palestinian bid for recognition to the UN, which has the potential to entrench Palestinian maximalism, push direct negotiations further away, unravel the Palestinian nation-building project that has done so much for both parties in the last two years, and, from Day 2, to set off frustration in the territories, and perhaps violence that escapes the control of both sides.
Little wonder then that Israelis, as much as hope springs eternal in their hearts, are more focussed on the gathering winter about their heads. But they should not be too pessimistic. For one thing, Abbas and Fayyad understand what Arafat never did: terrorism is counterproductive. That is no small thing, and could yet be the basis for turning September at the UN into October at Camp David. For another thing, as Shelley has it, if winter comes, can spring be far behind? For there it is, the seed beneath the snow, and it will have its day, even in this most authoritarian of regions. If the last thirty years of waves of democratization have taught us anything, it is that.