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Middle East Upheavals and Israel

Efraim Inbar is professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University and director of its Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies, specializing in Middle Eastern strategic issues with a special reference to the politics and strategies of Israel's national security. He served as a member of Israel's Political Strategic Committee of the National Planning Council and has authored five books ,most recently Israel's National Security: Issues and Challenges since the Yom Kippur War (2008). Prof. Inbar addressed the Middle East Forum in New York on October 27 and in Philadelphia on October 31, concerning the implications for Israel of the Arab unrest and American responses to it.

Israel_FlagMr. Inbar began his talk by expressing pessimism about the so-called "Arab Spring" and explaining its regional implications. He pointed to the weakening of the Arab states due to their failure to modernize, which in his view could lead to civil war and to failed states. He then noted the growing perception of American weakness as Arab leaders had seen Washington let its allies fall while doing nothing to support popular uprisings against hostile regimes (notably in Tehran and Damascus). Washington also criticized its Saudi ally for intervening in Bahrain (another ally) where the royal family was threatened by a pro-Iranian Shiite uprising.

While Israel's No. 1 security problem remains Iran's dogged quest for nuclear weapons, it is unclear how these momentous developments will affect Arab behavior. Having been weakened by the uprisings, the Arab states are likely to concentrate on their domestic problems and focus less on Israel. Yet some beleaguered regimes (Syria being the obvious example) may initiate limited confrontations with Israel to deflect attention from their internal predicament. There is also increased danger of regimes losing control of their territory, with recent events in nominally-controlled Egyptian Sinai being a possible precursor. There is already evidence of national weapons arsenals (notably in Libya) finding their way to trouble spots like Gaza.

Inbar warned that Israeli deterrence has declined due to the perception of a reduced U.S. readiness to back its local ally in time of need as it had done in past crises and wars. He also anticipated the end of the Palestinian-Israeli "peace process" and expressed relief that Israel had failed to give the Golan Heights to Syria. Finally, Inbar warned of the threat of Islamist resurgence in the eastern Mediterranean and stressed the importance of Cyprus, and of Greece protecting it, in the face of potential Turkish designs on the island. Israel, he argued, would have to spend more on defense, especially its navy, in order to ensure its security and safeguard its rights to the natural gas fields that had recently been discovered in its nearby territorial waters.

The speaker ended on a cautiously optimistic note regarding the region's demography. Israel's Jewish population has the highest birth rate in the Western world at a time when Palestinian and Arab-Israeli birth rates are declining. No less importantly, cleavages in Israel's body politic —between socialists versus capitalists, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and between left and right— have largely disappeared. The heated debate between "Greater" and "Smaller Israel" loyalists no longer roil the nation, with approximately 70% of Israelis supporting the two-state solution.

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Summary written by MEF intern Stefan Kirschner.

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