By Matthew Bell
Pentagon chief Robert Gates traveled to Israel this week. And the secretary of defense urged Israeli leaders to take "bold action" on the stalled peace process. But from Israel's perspective, taking risks at this time of uncertainty in the region is a non-starter; though the Israelis got some reassurance Thursday from an important neighbor that's going through tumultuous change.
For the first time, Egypt's post-Mubarak military rulers formally hosted an Israel diplomat in Cairo. The Egyptians said they intend to uphold their peace treaty obligations with Israel. Such developments aside, the so-called Arab Spring sweeping the region leaves many Israelis overcome with one feeling.
"Deep anxiety," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Americans, he said, might look at the Middle East and see a replay of the fall of communism. But "Israelis sense between what is happening today in the Arab world and what happened in 1989 in Eastern Europe is that in Eastern Europe when communism fell, there was nowhere for Eastern Europe to go but toward democracy. In the Arab world, there is a potent alternative. And that is, Islamist fundamentalism."
When it comes to Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Halevi said westerners are choosing to bury their heads in the sand.
"The Muslim Brotherhood has learned that it's not healthy for Islamists in Egypt to declare their intention to govern. And it's far safe to say that we buy into the democratic process. The problem is that the only real political movement that is organized today is the Brotherhood."
From Israel's standpoint, the worst-case outcome in Egypt would be a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood and the end of the peace treaty. Experts believe that's unlikely, but they don't foresee a warm and fuzzy relationship either.
The devil they know
To Israel's north, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is being challenged by demonstrations. Bradley Burston is an Israeli editor and columnist with the Ha'aretz newspaper. He said as bad as things may seem between the two countries, Israelis might prefer the devil they know.
"Even though Syria does support the Hezbollah armed force, in southern Lebanon," he said. "And even though Syria has become increasingly close to Iran, they have absolutely stuck to the agreements that they signed and that Israel signed in 1974. And at this point, no one knows what will happen if the Assad government falls."
With all the regional uncertainties, many in Israel are arguing for a wait and see approach. But David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy isn't convinced, especially when it comes to Israel's relationship with its closest Arab neighbors, the Palestinians.
"I think it's wrong to say that all the risks are on the side of action and all the safety is on the side of inaction. There are security arrangements, border arrangements and there Israel needs to be cautious how that is done," Makovsky said. "But I think just being paralyzed by events could have its own dangers."
If Israel waits before trying to reach a political compromise with the Palestinians, Makovsky said, it might be faced with a more radical Palestinian leadership down the road. But there's another dynamic at work.
"The problem is that in the Middle East too often, it's when it's quiet, there's no need to compromise," Makovsky said. "And when there's violence, you can't afford to compromise. And you somehow have to cut through that."
In recent days, violence has been on the rise. Jerusalem suffered its first major terrorist bombing in seven years. There's been an escalation in rocket and mortar fire from Gaza, and Israeli air strikes in response. The big question the Israeli news media is asking now, is if – and when — it's time for another large Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.