David Ignatius: Confronting an uncertain future in Israel

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: July 8, 2012

Whatever else that might be said about the Arab revolutions, it's obvious that they pose a problem for Israel. But how bad, and what should the Israeli government do to hedge its risks? I heard some interesting — but not very encouraging — ideas on this subject from top government officials last week.

To sum up: Most officials think relations with the Arabs are gradually going to get worse, perhaps for decades, before democracy really takes root and the Arab public, perhaps, will be ready to accept the Jewish state. The challenge for Israel is how to avoid inflaming Arab public opinion, a newly important factor, while also protecting the country.

The trouble ahead is symbolized by the election of Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, as president of Egypt. His inauguration prompted a wary message of congratulation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressing hope that Israeli-Egyptian relations will be cooperative and based on mutual interest. The statement masked deep Israeli anxieties.

Netanyahu fears an erosion of the relationship with Egypt over time and wants to slow that process, if possible, while also preparing for potential trouble.

The most obvious test will be Gaza, where the militant Hamas leadership is closely allied with the Muslim Brotherhood. Netanyahu has tried to de-escalate crises that have arisen, but if rocket attacks increase, they may draw a harsh Israeli military reaction — which could worsen relations with Cairo.

The Sinai Peninsula is another flash point. This vast desert is becoming a lawless area where al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are trying to find a haven. Intelligence officials here believe the extremists' strategy is to provoke an Israeli retaliation, and thereby encourage an unraveling of the peace treaty.

The chill in Israel's relationship with Turkey adds to the dangers of instability in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Netanyahu has responded by seeking new allies, including:

A “Balkan arc” anchored by newly closer relations with Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania. Some of those countries allow the Israeli air force to train in their airspace, providing an alternative to the now unfriendly skies over Turkey.

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