Daniel Levy writes:
After decades of near-hegemonic Israeli strategic supremacy in the Middle East, the ground is shifting. For Israel’s leaders, the Arab Awakening and the removal of Mubarak represents the collapse of a key support structure in the edifice that maintains Israel’s regional posture. That edifice had been fraying for some time. Yet with Israel unwilling or unable to relinquish its control over and occupation of Palestine, it was a system of conflict management that had proven to be remarkably resilient. Undemocratic Egypt was that system’s linchpin. In fact, only an undemocratic Egypt could play this role, indifferent and dismissive as the regime was toward public opinion and able to pursue policies, both at home and abroad, widely perceived as being an affront to Egyptian dignity.
Every country needs a strategy for managing its external relations, especially in the near abroad. Israel’s predicament in this respect is especially challenging. Born as an unusual movement combining religious and historical claims to land with modern aspirations of state-building and communal preservation, Zionism was initially branded by most in the region as a colonial project, a sense that Israel has fed with its expansionist and expulsionist approach to the indigenous population. Unfortunately for Israel, that indigenous population has ethnic and religious ties to a large population throughout the surrounding region. Nevertheless, Israel managed to adapt, pursuing whatever great power or regional alliances were available, making itself useful to the United States as a cold war ally.
Long after it became clear that the Oslo peace process would not deliver Palestinian freedom, rights or sovereignty, the structures established by it and the opportunities they have forged for Israel have endured. They were kept afloat by donor assistance, by the difficulties entailed in dismantling the Palestinian Authority and, crucially, by the stamp of legitimacy that only Egypt could confer. The impact of the Arab Awakening on Israel’s leaders must be understood first and foremost against this backdrop.
But here’s the key statement Levy makes which defined Israel’s view of the region well before the Arab Awakening erupted:
Israel has erected a separation barrier between itself and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, is proceeding to do the same on the Egyptian border and has long had closed and militarily fortified borders with Lebanon and Syria. Trade with all of its Middle East neighbors, in fact, amounts to less than 5 percent of its total. Israelis rarely visit even those Arab countries it is possible to enter, and the Arab community inside Israel is treated as a fifth column rather than as a bridge to regional relations. Of course, this is a two-way street. Yet when the physical barriers are combined with what is often a striking lack of intellectual, cultural and social curiosity, Israel is in danger of being fundamentally incapable of interpreting developments in its immediate surroundings.
This incapacity is not just an impediment — it actually defines the core of Zionism.
Israel defines itself as a state by its desire to underline the otherness of the non-Jew and emphasize the necessity for Jewish solidarity and self-reliance. On this basis, how would it be possible to foster dynamic and creative relations between Jews and Arabs when the prevailing attitude among Israeli Jews is that they have little or no interest in having any relations with Arabs?