Lord Risby is the former Conservative MP Richard Spring.
As a student I visited Israel when the collectivist culture of the founding fathers 63 years ago was still in evidence. The ethos of kibbutz life was a source of considerable national satisfaction. Today as one looks at Israel, it has been transformed into one of the most successful economies in the world. From science to medicine, from IT to bio-technology, Israel continues to produce both brilliant individuals and world-beating businesses of the highest quality.
When Binyamin Netanyahu addresses the US Congress later this month he can feel very proud of his country’s accomplishments. He will be rapturously received by the representatives of a country to which Israel is joined at the hip. Israel’s democratic credentials and its ferociously independent judiciary are complemented, in the American view, by its being on the front line against terrorism, and the threats to its very existence expressed by theocratic Iran.
Yet surely this is precisely the time for Israel to be bold and counter-intuitive, to grasp the mood for change sweeping through its neighbours and embrace it, to set out a new and different geo-political compact for the region. Yet the country’s response to the seismic changes in the Arab world has been muted and cautious. Israel now faces the possibility of a successful Hamas-Fatah alliance, internationally recognised statehood for the Palestinians, a less predictable Egyptian government and an unknown ultimate outcome in Syria.
In 2006 Hamas surprisingly won the Palestinian elections. In retrospect, was it wise to have immediately rejected the result of this democratic will and expression, instead of pausing to reflect? And not to have used the opportunity to involve countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to try to de-fang the anti-Semitic rants and actions of Hamas. It may or may not have worked, but instead there was total instant rejection. With the increasing prosperity of the West Bank, the enhanced reputations of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, and a sense of futility in some parts of Hamas, it has been possible for Egypt to broker the unity accord.
Of course, it may not last. However, Israel immediately froze the pay of 170,000 Palestinian Authority employees in Gaza and the West Bank simply because it disliked the deal. The $86 million it held back was from Palestinian border taxes and customs. It was not Israel’s money. What will Israel do if during the autumn many UN members begin to recognise a Palestinian state? Will there simply be another reflex reaction, especially as there are many in Israel who feel that statehood and recognition are now inevitable?
The importance of a stable relationship between Israel and Egypt is key, but Egypt’s attitude to Gaza is different from the Mubarak government.
Many Israelis feel that the Netanyahu administration has not grasped the opportunity to make progress on the Palestinian peace process and that events are now slipping away from them. Settlements continue to expand illegally. Outside the United States public opinion abroad is much less sympathetic than ever before. Turkey long enjoyed an excellent relationship with Israel, being able to interact both with it and Arab countries. It is an important and growing influence in the region, and a very close and valued ally of ours.
Yet the way that Israel in effect terminated the dialogue which Turkey brokered between Israel and Syria, and the flotilla storming incident, have severely damaged this crucial relationship. Additionally, whatever the political outcome in Syria is, the continuing illegal occupation of the Golan Heights will guarantee tensions between the two countries. There is no religious or strategic justification for this occupation, and it simply encourages Syria to use Hezbollah to punish Israel, thereby reinforcing the link to Iran.
Yet for such a vibrant democracy as Israel, the Arab spring, no matter how erratic or patchily successful now, clearly offers a new regional dynamic. In Gaza and the West Bank, demonstrators have called for unity as the perception has grown that without unity there will be no progress. As the trans-border trangressions proved this weekend, frustration remains intense. Palestinian leaders sense a mood for change in the air. Arab governments no longer believe that the United States has the will or capability to pressure Israel to be more accommodating, and believe that no solution can be reached without Palestinians agreeing with each other.
So Israel has a choice. Either to remain in a comfort zone of caution or indecision, backed up by its enormous military and security capabilities, or produce a fresh agenda for engagement with its neighbours.
In the end, no nation can escape its geography. We may flatter ourselves that we have a special relationship with the United States, but it is but nothing compared to that of Israel’s. At this time, American support for Israel whether in the legislature or amongst the public is unswerving, and President Obama’s speech this week will not change that. But ultimately Israel cannot forever rely on such a level of protection from a country thousands of miles away.
Surely this is precisely the moment for Israel to reflect on events around it, and in its own interests to think out of the box. If it does not, history may make a harsh judgment on its failure to road test the opportunities that the Arab spring have provided.