As a parade of U.S. officials heads to Jerusalem to confer with Israeli leaders, much of the focus has been on Iran. After all, it is widely assumed that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to head off an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, and Israel understandably is feeling jittery following the lack of any meaningful progress on the P5+1 negotiations. There is, however, another reason why administration officials—from Tom Donilon, Bill Burns and Hillary Clinton earlier this month to Leon Panetta this week—may be trying to reassure Jerusalem. And it has to do with Israel’s more immediate neighbors.
Before the fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia set off protests and changes in governments across the region, Israel was surrounded by a set of outwardly unfriendly but decidedly status quo states. Israel had peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and cold but stable relationships with Syria and Saudi Arabia. Today, however, Israel looks around the region with great consternation: Egypt has a newly emboldened Muslim Brotherhood president; Jordan increasingly is viewed as unstable in the face of growing protests; Syria is in the midst of a civil war; Bashar al-Assad has threatened to rain missiles down on Tel Aviv should NATO try to dislodge him; and even the Saudis now are dealing with protests in their country’s Eastern Province. Furthermore, political scientists long have known that newly democratizing countries are the type of state most likely to go to war as new political parties ride the tiger of nationalism in order to win votes.
Given all of this, Israelis are understandably concerned about newly emergent strategic threats on their borders. David Ignatius recently wrote about Israel’s “Arab Spring problem,” in which he relayed concerns from Israeli officials that their country now has to think about hostile neighboring governments.
The question is whether this situation more closely resembles 1949 or 1968. In other words, is Israel about to enter an era of constant threats from its neighbors and regional instability, or are the states on Israel’s borders content to let the status quo remain despite the upheaval in their internal politics? For a number of reasons, the answer is the latter. First, Israel’s neighbors no longer have the capability to present a genuine threat to Israel due to internal problems. But the absence of a capable outside power backing them has also shifted the strategic environment in Israel’s favor.
Israel’s neighbors are wracked with economic hardships and political infighting. As Gabriel Scheinmann points out, both Egypt and Syria are in economic free fall , with foreign reserves plummeting, foreign direct investment nearly nonexistent and enormous budget shortfalls. Jordan also has a large current-account deficit and budgetary pressure (due to subsidies for food and energy) as well as a fuel shortage. None of these countries have the wherewithal to start wars with Israel, and Egypt and Jordan desperately need foreign aid from the United States that would disappear should their peace treaties with Israel be abrogated. Israel’s neighbors cannot afford to take on Israel militarily—even if their armies were up to the task.
Furthermore, the Arab Spring actually has benefited Israel by taking it off the table as a primary domestic political concern. In the past, Arab governments were able to alleviate pressure on themselves by bringing up the plight of the Palestinians and redirecting public anger toward Israel, thus papering over the fact that Arab states were failing their people. As Arab publics have gained more of a say in their own political affairs, however, bread-and-butter issues rather than perfidious Zionists have become paramount. Governments expected to be responsive to societies that have had a taste of democratic politics can no longer play the Israel card to the exclusion of all else.
While 61 percent of Egyptians still want to scrap the treaty with Israel, this should not be mistaken for a desire to go to war or to put fighting Israel ahead of improving the economy and the rule of law. The conventional wisdom is that governments that have to take public preferences into account are going to have to put distance between themselves and Israel, and while this is undoubtedly true, it misses the big picture. Egypt and Jordan may stop coordinating with Israel on a host of issues, but that presents a very different problem than having to be on constant alert for invading ground forces. As for Syria, Assad has his hands full trying to remain in power and has passed the point where launching an attack on Israel will net any domestic political benefits. While Jerusalem is concerned about Assad passing chemical weapons to Hezbollah, the chance that Assad himself will deploy them against Israel is remote, and other groups such as the Kurdish Democratic Union Party don’t even register Israel as a concern. The struggle to fully control Syria will take a long time to play out, and Israel will be relegated to the deep background. Israel is indeed deeply unpopular with its neighbors, but it is also far from the first thing on people’s minds.