Former journalist Andrew Tabler has advice for pro-Israel advocates: Focus on a convergence of threats to Israel, from Iran’s nuclear program, to the fallout of the Arab uprisings, to the emergence of “ungoverned” spaces among Israel’s neighboring countries. “It is very complicated, but getting these things right is very important for Israel’s security,” said Tabler.
Now a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Tabler will be the keynote speaker at the Step Up For Israel Advocacy Summit on Sunday, Oct. 20, at the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
Tabler spoke with NJ Jewish News on Oct. 11 about the topic of his address, “Chaos in the Middle East — A Threat or Opportunity for Israel?”
NJJN: Is the chaos an opportunity, a threat, or both?
Tabler: I think it’s a mixed bag. On one hand, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, we have a shake-up in the political and social order for the first time in decades, and certain threats come out of that, when those Israel is not used to dealing with come to power, like in Egypt. What is even more of a worry is the growth of ungoverned spaces that crop up around Israel’s border, such as the Sinai. In Syria there are areas where there is no central governing authority, and of course, terrorist groups thrive in such areas.
NJJN: How is it an opportunity for Israel?
Tabler: If you wanted to shape some of the political opportunities, it is an opportunity for Israel and the United States, but the Obama administration has constrained our policy in trying to get [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to step aside.
NJJN: What steps would you advocate the Obama administration taking?
Tabler: Diplomacy makes sense to me but it must be followed up with a more realistic way of dealing with these countries. The old ways of simply dealing with sovereign leaders are no longer viable. Because new things, such as economic and social issues, suddenly matter for internal stability, we are going to have to try to engage emerging spaces and their economies. That is a real challenge for the Obama administration.
NJJN: Do you see the change in Iran’s government as a hopeful sign?
Tabler: It is a good development [in attempting] to get a diplomatic deal over the nuclear program. Sanctions have had a real impact on Iran, and President Rouhani admits that. The question is: How fruitful will the talks be and can we come up with a deal? We simply don’t know that yet. We know the Iranians are willing to talk. But the question is, for what? We are at the beginning of a very interesting chapter. It might not end the way we want it to. Most things don’t end up as the best case or the worst case scenario. We need to focus somewhere in between.
NJJN: You don’t seem to be taking the hard line Israeli President Netanyahu has: that Iranian leaders can’t be trusted and want to destroy Israel.
Tabler: The regime in Tehran is certainly opposed to Israel. But the question is: What will be acceptable to an American leader? What will be acceptable to an Israeli leader? To an Israeli leader it is probably zero enrichment of uranium. To an American leader it could be something else. At the end of this process, Iran could be nuclear, or partially nuclear, and at the same time Iranian influence would have spread quite extensively in Syria.
NJJN: Do you view this moment as more dangerous for Israel than other times in history?
Tabler: Certainly in the early part of its existence, Israel was in extreme danger. The threat of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to Israel. But also, in focusing on that so much, there is a danger that around Israel other kinds of threats are cropping up. So even if there was a deal on the nuclear threat, you could have cropping up on Israel’s borders a number of places where it is defending itself on the front line. I am worried about that.