Israel’s Lost Chance

Seven months into the Arab Spring, Israel’s leaders are getting over their initial alarm and confusion about how to react, and have begun to embrace the region’s new uncertainty. Increasingly, they see it as a diplomatic opportunity to affirm Israel’s importance to its traditional friends.

The West may dislike Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians — the new calculation goes — but Israel is the only country in the region that will certainly remain a stable, pro-American democracy. By that logic, it should be the West’s ally of choice in a volatile region.

That’s a windfall for the diplomacy of a man who wields power as Mr. Netanyahu does. But he has yet to recognize and seize Israel’s largest opportunity — a chance to avert a diplomatic fiasco this fall by working with President Obama to negotiate peace with the Palestinians. Time to do that is growing very short.

For most of the last 30 years, Israel could take comfort in the stability and predictability of neighboring authoritarian governments. Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt kept its peace treaty and served as Israel’s bodyguard. And while the Syrian government founded by Hafez al-Assad was hostile, it sprang few surprises.

Israel came to think of any rapid political change in a neighbor as a danger, because it might bring a hostile Islamic movement to power — as happened in Iran in 1979. In recent years, as Mr. Mubarak aged and a succession loomed, there was talk among Israeli officials of Egypt’s becoming an “Iran next door.” But the speculation never went far because Israel’s intelligence analysts and academic experts predicted a smooth transfer of power.

In January, those predictions were defied with the uprising that drove Mr. Mubarak out. And as upheaval spread to other countries, something close to panic took hold in Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu increased defense spending, accelerated construction of a fence along the border with Egypt, and looked anxiously toward Iran. One of his close associates described his mood to me in one word: “Masada,” evoking the desperation of an ancient siege.

The low point seemed to come in May, when it became clear that Syria was in a sustained uprising. Israelis wondered who might get control of Syria’s missiles and whether its president, Bashar al-Assad, would try to divert the protests by provoking Israel. Indeed, in May and June he allowed Palestinian refugees to confront Israeli troops at border points.

But the trick failed. Syrians kept their fury focused on President Assad.

That was a turning point for Israel. As Mr. Assad faltered, Iran’s regional alliances seemed to weaken. Hamas, the Islamist movement now in charge in Gaza, was moving away from Iran and closer to Egypt. Turkey, cold toward Israel for a year, signaled a desire to turn from Mr. Assad and get closer to the American camp. Even Hezbollah, in Lebanon, was cautious; it stayed out of the Syrian fray. Most important, the transitional rulers in Cairo stuck to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — always Israel’s deepest concern.

Mr. Netanyahu sensed an opportunity for his government to break out of the international isolation brought on by its intransigence vis-à-vis the Palestinians. He warmed up to Turkey. He began a diplomatic campaign to thwart a Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition in September. He persuaded Greece to block the departure of a protest flotilla bound for Gaza.

But diplomatic successes, like battlefield victories, can inspire overreach.

When he visited America in May, Mr. Netanyahu picked a fight with Mr. Obama over a formula for peace proposals. That raised his popularity at home and pleased Republicans in America. But in the long run, it could cost Israel dearly.

America needs Israel, but Israel needs America much more. The Palestinian problem will not go away, and the new uncertainty in the Middle East may only make it more severe. The region is bracing for a diplomatic crisis in September, when the Palestinians plan to go to the United Nations to seek recognition of statehood. And if protests in the style of the Arab Spring spread to the West Bank in advance of that diplomatic maneuver, they could turn a contest of words in New York into a third intifada in the Palestinian territories.

Mr. Netanyahu should have used this spring and summer to reach a new understanding with Mr. Obama based on confidence about the American-Israeli friendship. He should have worked out an agreement on how to reignite the peace process, rather than antagonize the American president.

It isn’t too late for Mr. Netanyahu to change course. He has reaped diplomatic fruits from the regional crisis, but has refrained from taking political risks at home. His timidity and cynicism will prove costly for Israel when the Arab storm reaches its shores. Before time runs out, he must leverage Israel’s new strength to join Mr. Obama in creative diplomacy to avert a diplomatic debacle in September and pursue a stable peace with the Palestinians.

Aluf Benn, editor at large of Haaretz.

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