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Israel in the post-Arab Spring Middle East - Public lecture by Amir Weissbrod

Amir Weissbrod, the Deputy Head of the Center for Political Research, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel held a public lecture on Israel in the post-Arab Spring Middle East on the 22nd of May in the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT). The event was organised in cooperation between IFAT and the Embassy of the State of Israel in Budapest.

Mr. Weissbrod started his speech by explaining the principles of Israeli foreign policy and the effects of the “Arab Spring”. First of all, he underlined that Israel conducts a limited foreign policy. It doesn’t intend to interfere in its neighbours’ domestic politics, although it has drawn the red lines which would induce intervention from its part. For instance, Israel’s main goal in Syria is to eradicate Jihadi groups and the Hezbollah from the country’s southern regions. However, as Israel has to face non-state actors recently, it must use force more carefully. Israel wants to deter their enemies, but in the same time they want to avoid a full-scale war. Secondly, he pointed out that Israel and several Sunni Arab states have common enemies. This led to more cooperation between them under the surface, however, their opinion still differs in other questions (especially in the Palestinian issue) and publicly they are still pose as adversaries. Finally, Mr. Weissbrod highlighted the importance of tactical flexibility of the Israeli foreign policy. For example, they work together with Egypt to stop arms transfers to the Gaza Strip, but at the same time they support Qatar’s policy to enhance the living standards of the inhabitants of Gaza.

Currently, there are three major threats to the Israeli security: Iran, Hamas and the Islamic State. The most pressing issue is Iran. Israel’s main concern isn’t the Iranian nuclear programme but the regional activities of Tehran. Mr Weissbrod pointed out that Shia radicalism – sponsored by Iran – helped the evolution of the Islamic State by alienating Sunnis in Iraq. Furthermore, Iran supplies its proxies (Hamas and Hezbollah) with modern arms. Despite the fact that the moderate Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in Iran, the president has limited role in foreign policy, which is still formulated by the hardliners like the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards. Nevertheless, Mr. Weissbrod also believes that Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and to Israel is a clear sign that the United States is committed to counter-balance the Iranian regional ambitions.

The second security threat for Israel is Hamas. Mr Weissbrod thinks that the transition of leadership from Khaled Meshaal to Ismail Haniyeh will change the priorities of the party. They will no longer aim to seize control of the Palestinian Authority and establish a united government, but they will focus only on Gaza. Consequently, this approach will conserve the division in the long term between the West Bank and Gaza. Israel’s main goal is to hinder the armament of Hamas and while providing the basic living conditions to the citizens of the territory. Regarding the third threat, the Islamic State is present in southern Syria, close to Israeli border. Nonetheless it is the ideology of the organisation that poses the real threat. They try to radicalize the Palestinians and the Arab Israelis, fortunately with little success so far.

Regarding the EU-Israeli relations, Mr Weissbrod underlined that, on bilateral level, they have great partnerships with each state, but they have tensions with the Union itself. The EU institutions link every issue to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which hardens the cooperation. On Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East, he underscored that despite of the fact that their goals are different, they have a mutual understanding of each other’s fears and strategy. This helps to maintain the good relations between Israel and Russia.

In his final thoughts, he expressed his concerns about the future of the Middle East. The underlying issue of the instability of the region is the economic hardship. Despite the “Arab Spring”, the needed structural reforms to tackle unemployment are still overdue. Also, the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Yemen will not lead to a long term stability in any of those countries.