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'Arab spring' uprisings inspire mixed feelings in Israel

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 8, 2011 - As the "Arab spring" uprisings continue to roil countries in the Middle East and North Africa, security experts in the region's closest U.S. ally are watching the developments with mixed feelings about their potential impact on Israel.

"We in Israel are following what's happening around us with a mix of hope and concerns," said Michael Herzog, a reserve brigadier general in the Israeli Defense Forces and former chief of staff to Israel's defense minister. "We believe that democracy in the Middle East can be a force for stability, but we are concerned about the transition from autocracy to democracy."

Herzog was in St. Louis this week as part of a delegation of leaders of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an Israel-based think tank supported in part by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Institute leaders met with federation officials and staff, local community leaders and the local media.

In a phone interview with the Beacon, Herzog said the "Arab spring" uprisings have raised the hopes of many people that open democracies might be established and survive in important nations, such as Egypt. But he added: "We know, perhaps better than others, that so many undemocratic forces there might hijack the process of transition."

In Egypt, Herzog said, the emerging new system of government might end up including more diverse political interests but might not "go the full way toward democracy," and the Muslim Brotherhood might become part of a ruling coalition. That, as far as Israel is concerned, is worrisome" because of fears about an Islamist agenda.

In Libya, the rebels appear to be an odd combination of secular forces, Islamists "and people who are known to be affiliated with al-Qaida," Herzog said. "It's hard to tell, even if they win, what exactly will emerge there. Who's going to rule Libya? Some rebels are talking to the West, but they are not the only groups in the queue."

Even so, whatever government emerges in Libya may well be an improvement over the current regime. Herzog said Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi has been "virulently anti-Israel" and has supported terrorist organizations.

Overall, Herzog said, "It is too early to make a judgment" on the impact of the "Arab spring" movements on Israel. He believes that the unrest in Israel's closest neighbors -- Jordan and Syria -- probably won't topple the current regimes in the short run. If Jordan's King Abdullah makes reforms, Herzog thinks his government will survive.

In Syria, "I don't expect the demonstrations will topple [President Bashar] al-Assad's regime in the near future. In the long run, it is hard to tell" -- although the Syrian government may be "further destabilized by events." He said that Assad "has been trying to use reforms to try to appease the demonstrators, and a hard-line policy of firing on the [demonstrators].... I don't think it's enough to quiet the situation, though, so you could have a prolonged situation of disquiet in Syria."

Israel's major worry in the region remains Iran, but the impact of the "Arab spring" uprisings on Iran is not yet clear. "There's a mixed balance sheet for Iran," Herzog said. "Obviously, the fact that demonstrators in this Arab revolution have risen mostly in pro-American countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and Bahrain has played into the hands of Iran."

On the other hand, Herzog said, Iran's leaders "also feel the heat of the revolutionary winds sweeping across the Middle East on their own [Iranian] domestic scene. Perhaps not enough, and they oppress them -- but they do feel the heat. And the threat of a regime change in Syria "is also to the detriment of Iran. If Syria falls, that would be a blow to Iran -- that's for sure."

Herzog was part of the institute's delegation that also included Avinoam Bar-Yosef, a former journalist who is the founding director of the institute, which produces strategy papers on many issues and is involved in a major project to assess the long-term future of the Jewish people. One of the institute's initiatives is to develop a global strategy to help improve relations with Islam.

"In general, we look at Judaism not only as a religion with a national aspect, but as a civilization," Bar-Yosef said. He said he and others in Israel are concerned about worldwide "efforts to de-legitimize Israel as a Jewish state," which he said has become "a strategic threat to us." He said Israelis realize that there is "legitimate criticism of Israel and its policies," but contends that de-legitimization goes far beyond the facts.

While Bar-Yosef said his institute and other groups want to improve attitudes toward Israel in the United States, he said that "defense relations between Israel and the U.S. are excellent - as good as they ever were. And that, I think, reassures Israelis."

The institute's's board chairman, Stuart E. Eizenstat, also was also in town for the meetings and a speech at Washington University. Eizenstat was former President Jimmy Carter's chief domestic policy adviser and later the U.S. special envoy on the Nazi gold issue.

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.