Egypt is an unruly military dictatorship, Syria is at war and will soon be hit by American bombs, the government may fall in Tunisia, Libya has no real government, Lebanon is now seeing growing Sunni-Shia strife, Jordan has a half-million Syrian refugees and the flow continues—one could go on. The “Arab Spring” seems to have led to a summer of tornadoes.
And there in the middle sits an island of tranquility, Israel—indeed one could even say Israel and the West Bank. No political instability, no terrorism, no war. One good way of measuring the mood in Israel is just how alert or relaxed the guards at every restaurant entrance appear to be. And they are very relaxed these days. The economy is okay, the prime minister looks like he’ll last a few years even if he isn’t beloved, and relations with many key Arab neighbors are good.
There are secret but obvious contacts with the Egyptian Army and cooperation against the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in Gaza and Sinai, cooperation with Jordan that keeps the border along the Jordan River dead quiet, coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces against terrorists in the West Bank, and a new alignment of Israel with the Gulf states that fear the Muslim Brotherhood, Syria, and Iran. Right now, Emirati, Saudi, and Israeli interests in the region are as close as they have ever been—and top officials all know it.
There are those, of course, who think the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains the key, central, main, critical (or whatever term is in fashion) issue in the entire region. But even John Kerry, long a paladin of that line, recently said of the chemical weapons use by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that “nothing today is more serious and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.” This, after all his trips to Ramallah!
Obviously this portrait of Israel as the calm eye of the hurricane is a snapshot, but watching the movie doesn’t change much. Few analysts think the Arab states are soon to become stable democracies or even stable autocracies. And as long as Iran is seen as a threat by the Sunni world, Israel’s relations with those states will not collapse. Objectively speaking, Israeli, Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Emirati interests will overlap for years to come. When I meet with Gulf Arab diplomats they don’t even mention the Palestinians until we get into the second hour of chatting. First things first, and that’s not Ramallah.
Moreover, there is no reason to think Israel will grow weaker in the coming years. Her gas discoveries will enrich her and make her self-sufficient in energy, and the high-tech sector north of Tel Aviv shows no signs of weakening.
But what worries Israelis (like pro-Western Arabs) most of all is not Iran; that’s second. First comes us, the United States. We are not only seen to be losing influence in the region but to be doing it willfully, purposefully. A strike at Syria might help reverse that perception, but not too much unless it is far larger than anyone now anticipates. The receding United States is not a topic of debate; it is mentioned in conversations the same way people mention the expanding Iranian nuclear program or the turmoil in Egypt, as a fact rather than as a debating point or new discovery.
For Israelis, tied so closely to the United States and dependent on us in many ways, this is all hard to understand. They (some of them, anyway) know about our budget squeeze, and they can appreciate that Iraq and Afghanistan left Americans tired of wars in the Middle East. They do not fully appreciate how much events in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere after the first hopeful moments in 2011 leave Americans thinking the Middle East is hopeless—a rabbit hole down which no more American treasure or blood should be poured.
But whether they approve or understand America’s declining power, they see it before their eyes, and know they must adjust. Just like the Arab allies of the United States, they look to local partners when interests overlap, and realize they must all act to protect themselves if we won’t. Thus has Israel hit Syria a minimum of four times (there appear to have been some other, unannounced strikes) while the United States dithered, just as the Gulf Arabs have been pouring money and guns into Syria, and money into Egypt, to protect their own interests when we were not protecting them through continuing efforts at regional dominance.
Syria is a proxy war with Iran, but the real Iranian challenge—nuclear weapons—remains ahead. Unless the American strike at Syria is far more robust than White House language today suggests, it will not reassure our allies in the region that America plans to solve their Iran problem. A year ago, in the summer of 2012, I thought Israel was about to hit Iran, and what I hear in Israel indicates that Netanyahu may well have wanted to but could not get a consensus among the key security players. Many people now doubt that Israel has the guts (in another version, that Netanyahu has the guts) to strike at Iran’s nuclear sites, but that is not the impression a recent trip to Israel leaves. On the contrary, it seems that a consensus is growing that an Iranian bomb is truly unacceptable, and that as a last resort Israel must act to prevent it. “Last resort” means they still wish the Americans, with our vastly greater firepower, would do it, but one meets few Israelis who believe that will happen.
So this island of stability may not be so tranquil down the road if the confrontation with Iran comes. But as one retired general of very high rank said to me, Iranian missiles and Hezbollah rockets may kill a few hundred people but not more, and it is a price we have to pay—and is worth paying—to stop the Iranian bomb. When I said Hezbollah had made Israel pay a real price in 2006 and had no doubt rearmed even more thoroughly since then, he laconically replied that Israel hadn’t stood still either.
To Israelis, surrounded as they are by a region in complete turmoil, and with both a regime using chemical weapons and a concentration of 5,000-7,000 jihadists to their north, today’s smooth sailing is obviously not permanent. It is especially worrying to them that American prestige and clout in the region are at a historic low. But whatever the future holds, let’s not overlook the remarkable present: Ten or twenty years ago, who would have predicted that Israel and the West Bank would be the only tranquil places within hundreds of miles?
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.