Middle East

Arab Spring challenges Israel leader Benjamin Netanyahu

David Cameron and Benjamin Netanyahu
Image caption The Israeli Prime Minister is trying to garner opposition to the Hamas-Fatah power-sharing pact

As the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes his campaign against a unity pact between the two main Palestinian factions to Europe he faces major policy challenges, says the BBC's Kevin Connolly in Jerusalem.

There is a satirical TV show in Israel which portrays Benjamin Netanyahu as an operatic baritone, stretching and bending every note he sings in a desperate effort to play for time as the chorus plagues him with awkward questions.

What is to be done about the Palestinians and their plans to ask the UN to recognise their statehood in September they ask; what will the Israeli prime minister say in the speech to Congress in which he will have to ensure that the US at least remains bound to Israel in the face of a rising tide of support for the Palestinians.

In the programme - Wonderful Country or Eretz Nehedorot - the Netanyahu character responds by suggesting he'll throw in the odd low note, interspersed with high notes. By way of variation he suggests he might thump the podium for emphasis.

The impression is that Mr Netanyahu is at best a tactician rather than a strategist - a man whose skills run more to artfully creating an impression of diplomatic activity rather than taking history by the scruff of the neck.

Unusual times

In normal times when Israel was doing well economically in a Middle East which was marooned in a kind of ice age of autocracy the strategy worked perfectly well for Mr Netanyahu (if not for the Palestinians). Trouble is, these are not normal times in the Middle East.

Half-completed revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia still offer the hope of a kind of Arab Spring even as the Assad regime in Syria follows the pattern of the Gadaffi administration in Libya - dragging whole countries into states of murderous chaos in an attempt to cling to power. The pressure for change is felt in Yemen too, and in Bahrain.

All around Israel fundamental things are changing and changing fast.

The editor of the Jerusalem Post, David Horowitz put it like this: "We are on the western edge of a largely hostile landmass so when drastic and dramatic things happen in our region and our intelligence, security and political leaders didn't tell us we're disturbed."

"Our existence depends on us being smart and here, like everyone else, we were taken by surprise."

Palestinian pressure

It is not just the Arab Spring, either. In pressing for the United Nations to recognise their statehood - with or without a peace treaty with Israel - the Palestinians appear finally to have hit upon a strategy with which the Israeli government is struggling to cope.

Image caption Arab uprisings like the one in neighbouring Syria are changing the dynamics of the Middle East

In visits to London and Paris, Mr Netanyahu did what he could to make sure that Britain and France do not vote for the Palestinian motion - they might, depending on what it says.

In Washington later this month, where he will speak to the House of Representatives, he will be under pressure to come up with something that feels at least like he is answering the summons of history.

All this at a time when his administration does not generate the instinctive warmth in Washington that Israel is used to and sympathy for the Israeli point of view in Europe is steadily eroding.

For once though, the Palestinian question may not be the most pressing item in Israel's national in-tray.

Anti-Israeli sentiment

The foundation of modern Israel's security and stability is the peace treaty signed with Egypt in 1979. It allowed the Israelis to slash defence spending (which once ran at more than 25% of GDP) and thus it could be argued laid the foundations for modern prosperity here too.

Popular sentiment in Egypt appears to run strongly against Israel and sooner or later if the largest country in the Arab world is to become a democracy, then it seems reasonable to assume that will be reflected in the attitudes of future parliaments and governments.

Image caption Anti-Israeli feeling is widespread in Egypt Egypt despite the 1979 peace treaty

Even if that does not result in a revision of the peace treaty itself - something that would horrify Washington too - it is going to make the relationship a more awkward one for Israel to manage.

It is something of a paradox for Israel which likes to remind its friends (and its enemies) that it is the only democracy in the Middle East that it may have been more secure when Egypt was an autocracy.

In the long-run, Israelis argue they would be better off if democracy were to spread to places like Egypt and ultimately even Syria on the general principle that open societies with free elections and free media are likely to take a less hostile view of Israel's existence.

But one former Israeli ambassador confessed to me gloomily that in the short-run things were not quite so simple.

"In the immediate sense," he said, "elections could be a bad thing because democracy would be based on the masses in Egypt or Syria which are not always well-informed. Political groups like the Muslim brothers who are already established will be able to influence the vote."

Challenges ahead

The Middle East suddenly seems like a much more uncertain place than it has for decades.

Pent-up anger at incompetent and corrupt governments presiding over squalor and mass-unemployment will provoke further and deeper change - and where governments resists may well lead to more violence and unrest.

It is a time of spreading opportunity and although the changing landscape as viewed from Israel may seem like a more threatening place it now falls to Mr Netanyahu to come up with an Israeli vision which is grand enough to match the magnitude of the moment.

When I asked a retired senior intelligence officer if this was an exhilarating time for Israel or a frightening one, he said simply: "Both."

If the producers of Wonderful Country are right his instinct might be to prevaricate. But he knows the times may call for something a little grander in scale.