DAVID IGNATIUS: Confronting an uncertain future in Israel / Arab relations

By David Ignatius

JERUSALEM – Whatever else that might be said about the Arab revolutions, it’s obvious 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, 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.
Efraim Halevy, the former Mossad chief, says Israel should face reality and begin talking with Hamas.
The Sinai Peninsula is another flash point. This vast desert is becoming a lawless area where al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups are trying to find a haven.
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.
• An implicit, if unspoken, alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states against Iran, and also against Muslim Brotherhood extremism. In this silent courtship, the Israelis are offering an alternative to an America that’s no longer seen as a reliable protector.
• New links with governments in sub-Saharan Africa, such as Kenya, Uganda and the Ivory Coast, which are worried that the rise of militant Islam in North Africa will spread south.
Israeli leaders know these new friendships, however useful, won’t alter the basic threat posed by an Arab awakening that, in most countries, has empowered militant Islamic groups.
Among the optimists, relatively speaking, is said to be Defense Minister Ehud Barak. He thinks Egypt and other neighbors will move toward the “Turkish model” of Islamic democracy, which may be cool toward Israel but will also be pragmatic.
A darker view is taken by some of the officials who know the Arab world best. They think that at the core of the Brotherhood’s ideology is rejection of Israel.
Israel’s existence, never easy, has gotten more complicated and unpredictable. “We are still inside this huge historical shift,” said one senior official, “and we don’t know where it’s going to take us.”
David Ignatius’ email address is davidignatius@wash post.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.