By Rachel Miller:
On Wednesday evening, Yale Friends of Israel hosted a lecture by Dr. Einat Wilf on the topic of “Israel, the Arab Spring, and the Future of the Middle East.” Dr. Wilf, a member of the Israeli Knesset from the centrist Independence Party, spoke to a packed audience of approximately seventy students and community members. Her speech addressed both the future of the Arab Spring and its strategic implications for Israel. The talk was co-sponsored by the Yale International Relations Association, The MacMillan Center Council on Middle East Studies, and International Security Studies at Yale.
Dr. Wilf proposed that the Arab Spring is less of a movement about instituting democracy than it is about “sweeping away the post-WWI order.” The breakdown of the Ottoman Empire and piecemeal state-creation by colonial powers continue to influence the region today. Before the Arab World is able to fully democratize, it must confront ancient rivalries, including ethnic, nationalistic, and religious tensions that are now bubbling to the surface. Dr. Wilf estimated that democracy building in the Middle East will take at least a decade or more, but ultimately believes that Arab Spring countries will successfully transition to democratic governance.
As a result of the Arab Spring, Israel now finds itself at the cusp of what is, according to Wilf, its most advantageous strategic position in recent history. Israel has experienced four years of relative peace. The judging eyes of the world have turned from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the chaos of the broader Arab World. Israel is now free to pursue a position in the region as a “neutral bunker,” analogous to Switzerland in Europe. According to Dr. Wilf, this policy means that Israel will remain neutral in the shifting Middle Eastern alliances while also keeping its defenses strong and limiting conflict spillover into Israeli borders.
The Arab Spring and “neutral bunker” policy have implications for Israel’s peace agreements and the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The current turbulence precludes efforts to expand Israeli peace agreements with other countries. The uncertainty in Egypt’s government has turned a frequently rocky peace agreement with Israel into a “cold peace.” Even Jordan, which has been limited in its exposure to revolutionary social movements, has been rolling back its peace agreement to a nonviolent, cool tolerance of Israel.
Solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict largely hinge on the Arab World’s general feelings toward Israel. It’s difficult to see a scenario where the conflict is resolved while at the same time, the Egyptian and Jordanian situations are deteriorating. Despite this, Dr. Wilf outlined numerous solutions to the conflict proposed by the Israeli right-wing, including Jordan’s absorbing the Palestinian population and West Bank, full Israeli annexation of the West Bank (including the extension of civil and voting rights to all Palestinian citizens), and the formation of an Israeli-Palestinian federation. The outcomes of these proposals will depend on the new realities in the post-Arab Spring transition period.
Perhaps the best way to describe the future of the Middle East is, to borrow the ubiquitous Israeli phrase, “it’s complicated.” While Dr. Wilf painted an optimistic future for both Israel and democratic movements in the Arab world, the region is still in flux. However, as Dr. Wilf said, rather than being known as the only democracy in the region, “Israel would like nothing more than to be in the position of being the first democracy in the Middle East.”
Rachel Miller ’15 is in Davenport College. Contact her at Rachel.Miller@yale.edu.