The Arab Spring upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East started in Tunisia at the end of 2010, and subsequently spread into Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, triggering repercussions in a wide arc of Arab countries.
In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya free democratic elections were held and brought to power Islamic regimes. But contrary to commentators’ alarming predictions, these regimes have been moderate or pragmatic in their domestic and foreign policies, including their attitudes to Israel and Jews. Nevertheless, several opposition groups in these countries are militant Salafists-Islamists and Jihadists, being both anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. This is also the case in Syria, where various Islamic groups are still fighting against the Baathist rule of Bashar Assad.
Egypt – the most populous and influential Arab state (some 88 million people) – is the most significant case to focus in on. It is governed by the ideologically religious Muslim Brotherhood, but its new constitution provides, inter alia, for a pluralist “democratic system” with freedom of expression and media, and equality for all citizens, including Christians and Jews. They will also be granted religious and worship rights according to the values of “tolerance and moderation.”
Nevertheless, the new Islamic regime has attempted to control the media and the legislative system, encountering strong opposition. In regional matters it has also reflected moderate pragmatic policies by rejecting the overtures of Shiite Iran toward improving bilateral relations (an exception to this rejection was the agreement to renew bilateral flights, which were soon after halted), while tightening ties with Turkey, perhaps within a “new democratic axis of power” (the Turkish foreign minister’s phrase). Egypt has also come closer to Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states that are deeply concerned (alongside Israel and Turkey) by the Iranian threat, as well as by the survival of the pro-Iranian regime in Syria.
With regard to Israel, despite hostile expressions by Islamic militants, Egypt’s President Morsi has appointed a new ambassador to Israel, exchanged greetings with President Peres and cooperated with Israel in reaching an informal agreement with Hamas to end the IDF operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.
To be sure, President Morsi has a vested interest to settle not only the Hamas-Israel conflict, but also the entire Palestinian-Israeli dispute. According to him, “The Palestinian issue is first priority for Egypt and the rest of the Arab and Muslim States,” as he stated at the Islamic Solidarity Conference held in Mecca in August 2012.
Hashim Kandil, Egypt’s Prime Minister, noted at the Davos conference this January that his country expected that the new Israeli government would renew the peace process with the Palestinians for the sake of its own interests, and the interests of Egypt and the entire region. Like all Arab states and most Muslim nations, Egypt has continued to support, up to the present, the Saudi/Arab League peace initiative of March 2002.
As is well-known, this initiative, which has been recently approved again, offers Israel peace, security and normalized relations with all Arab countries, in exchange for Israel agreeing to the erection of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, as well as settling the Palestinian refugees’ problem according to U.N. Resolution 194 (of December 1948). Israel has not yet accepted this unprecedented initiative, which has the potential to be a critical breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations.
Indeed, Egypt and other new Islamic regimes in the Arab world have continued to support the Saudi/Arab peace initiative, while the Palestinian issue has gained great interest and solidarity among the Muslim masses, notably amongst militant groups. Simultaneously hatred for Israel and for Jews continues to increase among many Arabs and Muslims, because of the continued occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel, especially of East Jerusalem with its Muslim holy shrines.
Consequently it is in Israel’s vital interest to neutralize or decrease this negative sentiment while improving its image and position among moderate/pragmatic Muslim groups and governments. These goals can be achieved by accepting the Arab peace initiative and renewing the peace process with the Palestinians. Such crucial steps are likely to facilitate Israel’s potential alliance with Sunni Muslim states, notably Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf Emirates, vis-à-vis the common hazard emanating from Iran and its allies – Lebanese Hezbollah and the Alawi government in Syria.
Such an alliance must be coordinated by the U.S. with the tacit, gradual participation of Israel – provided Israel makes substantial progress in the peace negotiations with the Palestinians and simultaneously accepts the Arab Peace initiative. Alas, as during his previous government, the Netanyahu’s current cabinet is unlikely to assume such a pragmatic policy.
A significant change may occur only under U.S. pressure and with a reshuffle of the Israeli government, namely replacing Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party with the Labor party (and perhaps also Shas). The chances for this happening are slim; it is far more likely that Israel will continue to aggravate and intensify its regional and international isolation.