Jacob Heilbrunn

Israel and the Arab Revolutions

If generals are prone to fight the last war, a similar phenomenon may occur with historians and political scientists who read contemporary political events through the lens of the past. Specifically, they often assume that a replay of the past is inevitable. But it isn't.

To be sure, as the Arab revolutions sweep through the region--for something like this is happening--it is possible that old regimes will simply be replaced by more subtle authoritarians. There is no guarantee, after all, that Egypt's military will actually cede the democratic reforms it has promised. The protesters may have succeeded in ousting Hosni Mubarak with little to show for it.

But that is probably too sullen an analysis. Unrest, as the Wall Street Journal observes, is spreading in the Middle East. It's becoming a little more uncomfortable if you're in the dictator line of work. The portraits of Mubarak are coming down. While Mubarak presumably won't have to flee to a spider hole, he is now in a form of internal exile. The army has suspended the Constitution, dissolved the bogus parliament, and promised new elections.

The peaceful resolution of the crisis is emboldening protesters in Yemen, Libya, and Iran, where chants of "Death to the dictator" resounded on Sunday night. The Egyptian example would seem to suggest that perhaps the Arab world can, at least in some areas, transition to some form of democratic government. This, at its core, is the question that has tormented the region for over a century.

If the answer is yes, then the real loser will be the Israeli right. Israel trembled as it watched the Egyptian uprising. Had Egypt been taken over by radical Islamic forces, the hardliners in Israel would have been immeasurably strengthened. And now? Any move toward democracy weakens the last-ditchers who want no peace agreement with the Palestinians. It's already clear from the WikiLeaks that the Palestinian Authority was prepared to compromise with Israel and desperate to reach a peace agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu, however, couldn't, or wouldn't, take yes for an answer. He stalled, obfuscated, punted.

Now a wave of revolutions in the Arab world, particularly in Iran, would upset those calculations. Israel has been moving toward a more authoritarian form of government as the right takes over. If the Arab world moves, however haltingly, toward more freedom, Israel's current stance will become unsustainable. It faces the prospect of tumult in the Arab world that may increase the pressure on it to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians.