The Real Big Winner of the Arab Spring

Gabriel Scheinmann

Gabriel Scheinmann

Ph.D. candidate in international relations at Georgetown University.

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Gabriel Scheinmann ~

From the Blog

Spring, Winter, call it what you will, the upheavals of the last three years have left the Jewish state’s historic enemies universally weakened, while Israel goes from strength to strength.

Conventional wisdom holds that Israel has been the biggest loser of the revolutionary tidal wave known as the “Arab Spring.” The unraveling of stability on its borders and the empowerment of Islamic radicals are believed to be grave setbacks for Jerusalem. New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, for example, wrote that “Israel is facing the biggest erosion of its strategic environment since its founding.” He was joined by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who penned a column titled “Israel’s Arab Spring Problem.” Middle East experts Fawaz Gerges and Graham Fuller respectively dubbed Israel “the biggest loser” and “the biggest single loser, hands down.” Analyses from prominent Washington D.C. think tanks have echoed this assessment.

It seems that most Israeli officials agree. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the Arab Spring has become an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israel, and anti-democratic wave.” Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak called the upheaval “very, very disturbing,” while one of his predecessors, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, went so far as to offer asylum to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Amos Yadlin, former Director of Military Intelligence and now the leader of one of Israel’s most prominent think tanks, wrote, “Israel appears to be on the losing side, though worse situations may lie ahead.” Yossi Kuperwasser, Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, said that the upheavals have been characterized by “more uncertainty and more animosity and hostility toward Israel.” This doomsday analysis has resonated across the Jewish state, with many Israelis replacing the term “Arab Spring” with “Islamist winter.”

There is good reason to think, however, that this assessment is largely incorrect. In fact, the changes wrought by the Arab Spring are likely to be of long-term benefit to Israel. Its most dedicated enemies, especially the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance,” have been seriously weakened, both economically and militarily. The Arab states, hostile and otherwise, will be unable to directly challenge Israel for a long time. Their energies will be focused on domestic conflict as various forces battle for power and control. Moreover, Israel itself has remained mostly untouched by the regional upheaval. It has hardened its defenses and its economy is booming. Ultimately, a close look at the strategic situation suggests that Israel may well emerge as the only real winner of the Arab Spring.

Israel has been called the loser of the Arab Spring for a seemingly endless number of reasons. Perhaps the most serious was the initial “loss” of Egypt. Following the election of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian revolution seemed to have upended Israel’s entire strategic paradigm. The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty has long been regarded as the cornerstone of regional stability and, for Israel, its benefits were numerous: it demilitarized the Sinai, ended the threat of a multi-front war, and brought Cairo into the American orbit. Moreover, Egypt was a fierce opponent of theocratic Iran and fundamentalist jihadi groups, two of Israel’s most violent enemies. The treaty allowed Israeli warships to make routine use of the Suez Canal, and Egypt became Israel’s largest supplier of natural gas. While anti-Semitism was rampant in Mubarak’s Egypt, there was never any doubt that the country was no longer a serious military threat to Israel.
Destruction of Homs, Syria. Israel's most fearsome Arab enemy tears itself apart. Photo: Freedom House / flickr

Destruction of Homs, Syria. Israel’s most fearsome Arab enemy tears itself apart. Photo: Freedom House / flickr

But the sudden success of Egypt’s Islamists seemed to shatter three decades of unquestioned stability almost overnight. The rapid rise to power of the rabidly anti-Semitic, anti-Israel Muslim Brotherhood reminded Israelis of the anxiety they felt before the 1967 Six-Day War; and the Brotherhood made little attempt to assuage Israeli fears. They openly derided the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, denounced its restrictions on the Egyptian military’s freedom of movement in the Sinai, and allowed the passage of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in over 30 years. Morsi himself had previously expressed strong support for Hamas, called Jews “bloodsuckers, who attack the Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of pigs and apes,” and was taped mouthing “amen” as an imam called on Allah to “destroy the Jews and their supporters.”

There was also a concrete deterioration in Israel’s security, as the implosion of the ancien regime transformed the Sinai into a hotbed of terrorism.On April 7, 2011, a cross-border attack on a school bus resulted in the death of a child. In August of the same year, eight Israelis were killed in a spree of similar attacks. A year later, Israel was forced to use airpower on its own territory for the first time to end another terrorist assault. Later in 2012, an Israeli soldier was killed while patrolling the Sinai, and rockets have sporadically fallen on the southern city of Eilat. In addition, following the repeated sabotage of the trans-Sinai pipeline, Egypt canceled its natural gas contract with Israel. What was once Israel’s quietest border precipitously degenerated into the most dangerous.

Even after the July 3, 2013 military coup that removed Morsi from power, Egypt’s ongoing civil strife has rattled Israeli nerves. The army takeover and ensuing crackdown has increased jihadi violence in the Sinai and created the potential for an Islamic insurgency across Egypt. Jerusalem is also troubled by the Obama administration’s reaction to the coup. While it conducted business as usual with the Brotherhood, since the coup, the administration has canceled bilateral military exercises, suspended the delivery of fighter planes, and placed military aid “under review.” Consequently, while the military takeover has improved Egyptian-Israeli relations, it has destabilized Egyptian-American relations. Israelis find it difficult to understand this. Why, they wonder, did Obama treat Egypt as a better ally under the Brotherhood than under the military?

Furthermore, the Arab revolutions have also strengthened Hamas. Over the last year, Hamas has hosted the Turkish and Tunisian foreign ministers, the Malaysian and Egyptian prime ministers, and the ruling emir of Qatar, the first head of state to visit Gaza since the Hamas takeover. Despite tense relations, both Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have sought a rapprochement with Hamas. Jordanian officials met with Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal for the first time in a decade and Mahmoud Abbas permitted Hamas rallies in the PA-controlled West Bank.


Hundreds of thousands protest against the Morsi government in Tahrir Square, Cairo, November 2012. Photo: Wikimedia

Hundreds of thousands protest against the Morsi government in Tahrir Square, Cairo, November 2012. Photo: Wikimedia

Meanwhile, the breakdown of government authority in Libya and Egypt created an arms smuggling route that flooded Gaza with sophisticated weaponry. Last October, Hamas fired, for the first time, a shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missile at an Israeli helicopter. Hamas has also acquired a number of Russian-made Kornets, laser-guided anti-tank missiles, which it fired at an Israeli school bus in April 2011 killing one child and at an Israeli jeep patrolling the border in November 2012. During Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas unveiled a rocket arsenal that was even more powerful than expected. The terrorist group launched over 1,500 rockets at Israel and was able to target Tel Aviv and even, for the first time in history, Jerusalem.

The situation to Israel’s north is no less volatile. The Syrian civil war and the emergence of jihadi groups as a major force among the rebels have awoken a border on the Golan Heights that had been relatively quiet for four decades. In May and June 2011, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, perhaps hoping that an Israeli overreaction would help shift attention away from the civil war, sent scores of Palestinians across the border, resulting in the largest loss of life on the Golan since the Yom Kippur War. Since November 2012, Syrian artillery shells and mortar fire have periodically struck Israeli communities on the Golan, prompting the IDF to return fire. In January, May, and July 2013, Israel reportedly conducted airstrikes in Syria, targeting the transfer of advanced missiles. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), in place since 1974, is hemorrhaging forces as countries withdraw their commitments. Moreover, Assad’s repeated use of chemical weapons, sparking international outrage and the threat of US military action last month, has prompted fears that Assad may use them against Israel or transfer them to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah.

The destabilization of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and even Jordan have all triggered alarm bells in Jerusalem. But will that translate into bigger threats than in the past?

While it may loathe Assad’s behavior, Israel is also worried that any post-Assad regime could be even worse. The Syrian rebellion has been largely co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood and other jihadi groups. The Telegraph recently reported a study that found “only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.” The rest are Islamists of one kind or another. Even after the Obama Administration designated one rebel faction as a terrorist organization, Al-Qaeda-style groups have continued to emerge. They have been filmed doing reconnaissance along the Syrian-Israeli border, armed with anti-tank missiles and machine guns. Other Syrian rebels have boasted of “liberating the Golan” from Israeli control after Assad is brought down. A jihadi group in Lebanon recently launched four rockets into Israeli territory. Israelis fear that a jihadist Syria, allied with sister movements in Sinai and Gaza, could result in an Islamist encirclement of Israel.

Even Israel’s most reliable partner, Jordan, has been shaken by the Arab Spring. The ruling Hashemite monarchy is currently facing the most serious challenge to its rule in 40 years. The so-called “East Bankers,” Jordanian tribes that make up the ruling class and are essential to the monarchy’s survival, have railed against the composition of various cabinets and stepped up their protests against the peace treaty with Israel. The Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been at the forefront of the unrest. To appease his opponents, King Abdullah attempted a rapprochement with the Hamas leaders he expelled from Jordan a decade ago, reshuffled his government numerous times, and is now on his fifth prime minister in two years. In addition, a serious budgetary crisis, the arrival of over half a million Syrian refugees, and the firing of Syrian artillery into Jordanian territory threaten to destabilize the country all together. The fall of the Hashemite dynasty could be one of Israel’s worst nightmares.

Taken together, all of these disasters seem overwhelming and portray Israel as a serious loser in the balance of changes wrought by the turmoil. A closer inspection, however, reveals that these upheavals have had a far more devastating effect on Israel’s enemies and that Israel itself has emerged largely unscathed.

In Egypt, which still styles itself as the leader of the Arab world, the ongoing domestic turmoil has accelerated the decline of an already sclerotic state, leaving it unable to seriously threaten Israel for some time. The Egyptian economy is in free-fall: foreign investment, GDP growth, and foreign exchange reserves have all collapsed, the budget deficit is large and growing larger, Egypt’s credit rating is deep in junk territory, and tourism has plummeted. Meanwhile, the rapid rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is concentrating societal energies inwards rather than towards Israel. General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s new military government has initiated a nation-wide crackdown on opponents, arresting many senior Muslim Brothers in the hopes of decapitating the organization and putting down public protests with deadly force. As a result of this struggle for dominance, civil strife and a continued low-level insurgency could define Egyptian politics for some time.

Thousands of temporary shelters installed inthe  Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Brian Sokol / UNHCR

Thousands of temporary shelters installed inthe Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Photo: Brian Sokol / UNHCR

Militarily, things are also looking up for Israel. Since the Egyptian army regained political power, it has initiated a sweeping counterterrorism operation in Sinai. In August, Israel conducted a drone strike against a Sinai terrorist cell, presumably with Egyptian permission, indicating a high level of military cooperation between the two countries. Hamas has been squeezed as well; thus far, 2013 has seen the lowest level of rocket attacks since the Gaza disengagement eight years ago. With its ally Morsi toppled from power, the terrorist group is now facing an Egyptian crackdown on its smuggling operations and terrorist activities along Israel’s borders. In short, it seems that the new Egyptian regime will aggressively pursue policies favored by Israel, if only out of its own self-interest.

Even if Egypt wanted to upend the status quo with Israel, it could not do so since the Egyptian army is heavily dependent on American military aid. Washington provides $1.3 billion annually, which accounts for 40 percent of Egypt’s defense budget and close to 80 percent of its weapons procurement costs, including thousands of M1A1 Abrams tanks and hundreds of F-16 fighter jets. Moreover, the Americans have made it clear that this largesse is directly linked to Egypt’s maintenance of the peace treaty. If Egypt moved to abrogate the treaty, its relationship with the United States would be terminated, all but destroying Egypt’s military capabilities in the process. In sum, Egypt will remain weak, unstable, internally focused, and militarily dependent on Washington for the foreseeable future. From a strategic standpoint, Israel has little to fear.

To the north, the balance of changes is even more beneficial towards Jerusalem. The Assad regime, Iran’s strongest ally and a major supporter of Hezbollah, is in a fight for its life. Syria is suffering an economic calamity. Its GDP, never particularly high, is shrinking precipitously, its foreign currency reserves are almost gone, and its domestic currency has been devalued to an unprecedented extent. Even if the civil war were to end tomorrow and a massive economic reconstruction effort undertaken, it would probably take at least fifteen years for the Syrian economy to return to its pre-war state.

Moreover, the Syrian military is now weaker than ever, ground down by a relentless and brutal civil war. At the moment, it can barely hold the line against poorly organized, untrained, and weakly armed rebel forces, which may be one of the reasons it has been reduced to using chemical weapons. Estimates published by the Associated Press suggest as many as 15,000 government soldiers have been killed, while the Institute for the Study of War estimates that 20 to 30 percent have defected. Whether the Assad regime survives or not, the Syrian military will be unable to challenge Israel for a generation.

Again like Egypt, Syrian energies will also be focused inward for some time, whatever the outcome of the war. Continued instability and sectarian violence will dominate the Syrian landscape in the future. Already, clashes have erupted between Kurdish fighters and Islamic rebels, while the Free Syrian Army has battled with Al-Qaeda extremists, and Sunni Islamic radicals have declared war on the Alawite heartland. As Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren recently stated, “Even regarding the jihadist opposition, we prefer the bad guys who aren’t backed by Iran over those who are.” Whoever emerges victorious will direct its efforts not against Israel, but towards establishing control, exacting revenge, and rebuilding the country.

Since the Arab Spring began, every real and potential enemy of Israel has become weaker.

Another possible outcome, the balkanization of Syria, could be even more advantageous for Israel. Syria could easily break up into rump Alawite, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish entities. Not only would this sever the regime’s alliance with Iran, but the power of Sunni jihadists would be seriously blunted. Moreover, Jerusalem could find an ally in the currently stateless Kurds, whose century-long quest for a state mirrors that of the early Zionists. Quiet Kurdish-Israeli contacts go back decades and will be useful to Israel against an aggressive Iran, a recalcitrant Turkey, or a chaotic rump Syria. No matter what happens in Syria, Israel’s strategic position looks better than the previous status quo.

In addition, Assad’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah—perhaps Israel’s most implacable enemies—have expended vast resources on Syria that could otherwise have been directed against Israel. Iranian and Hezbollah forces are actively engaged in helping Assad suppress the Sunni rebellion and have suffered numerous casualties. Despite suffering from severe economic sanctions that have caused economic difficulties at home, Iran has doubled-down on its effort to save Assad, sending troops, arms, and funding. Some analysts have suggested that Syria is Iran’s “Vietnam” or its “Stalingrad,” doomed overextensions that could have lasting strategic consequences. Similarly, Hezbollah’s involvement has reopened sectarian divisions in Lebanon, leading to fatal armed clashes between Sunni and Shiite groups in Lebanon itself and the return of tit-for-tat car bombings. Concurrently, the European Union finally designated Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization.

Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan. Photo: Brian Sokol / UNHCR

Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. Photo: Brian Sokol / UNHCR

Meanwhile, in Jordan, King Abdullah seems to have weathered any direct challenge to his rule despite the dire predictions, outmaneuvering his opponents through a mixture of cooption and exclusion. Anti-government protests in Jordan have been smaller than elsewhere in the Arab world, and Jordanian security forces were able to avoid the kind of lethal confrontations that could have sparked serious civil unrest.

Clearly, Israel would prefer the Jordanian monarchy remain in power, much as it preferred Mubarak in Egypt. But even if Abdullah were to fall, a post-Hashemite regime would face many of the same constraints as Egypt—economic and political volatility, continued dependence on the United States, and the inability to defeat Israel militarily. Much like Egypt, 20 percent of Jordan’s defense budget comes from the US and, as a major non-NATO ally, the country has received sophisticated American arms and military training. Moreover, Jordan’s military is relatively small and would be quickly overwhelmed by the far superior IDF.

All of this seems to indicate that, contrary to widely-held beliefs, the ongoing tumult caused by the Arab Spring has actually strengthened Israel’s long-term comparative geostrategic position. Israel’s most fearsome historical enemies—Egypt and Syria—have been dramatically weakened, with the former returning to a position of peaceful relations and a redoubled commitment to fighting terror, and the latter on the verge of dissolution. Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, once feted as the leader of the anti-Israel “resistance,” has been unmasked as a sectarian army and is now indelibly linked to the widely despised Assad. And though Iran has marched steadily forward with its nuclear weapons program, its most important proxies in the battle with Israel—Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria—are all significantly weaker than they were three years ago. Put simply, all of Israel’s neighbors are now more interested in domestic conflicts and fighting each other than taking on the Jewish state.

At the same time, Israel has emerged from the chaos relatively unscathed. Its economy has not missed a beat: Tourism is at an all-time high as Europeans shun their traditional Mediterranean vacation-spots for ironically safer Israeli beaches, trade with Asia and Latin America has increased, and Israel is currently the only OECD country to reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio. The Jerusalem Post recently reported that Israel’s GDP grew 14.7 percent from 2009-2012 and experienced 3.4 percent growth in the first half of 2013. In addition, the first of Israel’s recently discovered offshore gas fields came online in March, placing the country on track to becoming an energy exporter.

In the military sphere, Israel has deployed a series of defensive measures designed to neutralize the increase in low-level border violence that has resulted from the Arab Spring. In particular, the introduction of Iron Dome, a short-range missile defense system, has greatly enhanced the security of ordinary Israelis. First deployed in March 2011, Iron Dome scored an 85 percent success rate during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Only 58 of the 1,506 rockets fired from Gaza hit urban areas, resulting in only six casualties. Even as missile fire reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time, Israelis managed to maintain a sense of normalcy; in one famous incident, wedding-goers in Beersheba continued partying while filming the Iron Dome interceptions illuminating the sky above. By greatly alleviating the impact of missile fire on the Israeli populace, Iron Dome has given the political leadership breathing room, making it unlikely that rocket fire will force Israel into a larger conflict.

Iron Dome has meant a strategic-level shift in Israel's favor. Photo: Israel Defense Forces

Iron Dome has meant a strategic-level shift in Israel’s favor. Photo: Israel Defense Forces

Finally, analysts tend to overlook the most important factor: Israel’s overwhelming military superiority. The Arab states have fought four major wars against the Jewish state, all won convincingly by Israel. In the intervening 40 years, the IDF has only gotten stronger while Arab armies have petrified. Israel currently maintains a massive qualitative edge over its potential enemies, honed over decades of battle experience. The Egyptian and Syrian armies, untested since the Yom Kippur War, are not even capable of controlling their own territories, while Jordan has not gone to war since 1967. The Arab states know full well that they would be decimated in any large-scale conflict with the Jewish state.

Obviously, none of this should be taken as cause for sanguinity with regard to the long-term threats to Israel’s survival and prosperity. But the Arab Spring has compromised strategic rivals and devastated a number of these threats. While its neighbors are roiled by chaos and violence, Israel remains strong. By exercising restraint, keeping a low profile, and strengthening its defenses, Israel is in a better position now than it was several years ago. In fact, Israel may be the only real long-term winner of the Arab Spring.

Banner Photo: Israel Defense Forces