By Ehud Eiran, Associate, International Security Program
In the last few months we have seen a schizophrenic Middle-East, operating in parallel universes. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict — once the epicenter of regional instability — was calm as Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas settled into a strange modus vivendi, pending a possible declaration of Palestinian independence in the fall. In the other universe, the one comprised of Arab states such as Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia, an entrenched order of autocratic stability was smashed, when angry youth lashed out at their regimes, toppling leaders with the hope of radical change.
This weekend the two universes met. The energy displayed by Arabs in the region against their leaders, was adopted by a few hundred Palestinian refugees from Lebanon and Syria who tried to cross the border into Israel. They were repelled, but their actions laid the foundation for a possible fusion between the active regional storm of internal instability, and the dormant storm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Beyond the possibility that these were only the early signs of a greater wave, the Palestinian marches on Israel pose four immediate challenges for the Jewish state.
First, Israel’s hope that its democratic structure will spare it from the effects of the Arab spring was shattered. The angry young people that crossed into Israel signaled that at least for them, Israel is not an isolated democracy in a politically repressed region, but rather part of the structure of oppression that should be challenged. The wave that drowned Mubarak, Ben-Ali and others, is now rocking the Israeli boat.
Second, the challenge for Israel is not merely the need to contain the energy of anti (Arab) regime-like forces, but also to deal with the effects of the demise of the regimes themselves. Syria is a case in point. It traditionally held tight control over its border with Israel. The ability of hundreds of people to break through this control most likely indicates that Damascus is trying to regain internal legitimacy by igniting conflict with Israel. Alternatively, if Damascus was not fully involved in the march, the breach in its border control indicates that Syria has lost its ability to stabilize the sensitive border area. Both possibilities pose a significant challenge to Israel.
Third, the marches from Syria and Lebanon signal a possible shift in the internal Palestinian balance of power. Since the 1990’s the center of political and armed Palestinian action was in the West Bank and Gaza, leaving the millions-strong Palestinian diaspora on the side-lines. Now, with refugees outside of the historic Palestine presenting a new form of resistance to Israel, the diaspora — where the PLO was conceived almost half a century ago — is again a force to consider.
Finally, the nature of the marches — non-violent direct action — will force Israel to develop a response. While the Israel Defense Force was highly effective in containing armed Palestinian resistance, it still does not have a clear doctrine to contain mass non-violent resistance. The early manifestation of non-violent resistance in isolated locations in the West-Bank in the last year may now become a larger phenomenon in many fronts. All Israeli efforts to develop a response would force the Jewish state to reconcile its democratic values, with its desire to provide security, as it defines the term.
Israel faced in the past massive regional shifts. In the early 1990’s it was able to ride the wave of change and improved its strategic posture by joining the Madrid peace process. Will it be able to do the same now?