As Israel enters yet another round of peace negotiations with Palestinians, the fundamental concern that will guide its decision-making is security. And that's one issue that creates a quandary unique to this moment in history.
Israel has arguably never been safer than today. At the same time, the country's strategic position beyond this moment looks hazier than ever.
Israel's enemies have, for the moment, set aside the obsessive attention they normally expend on the Jewish state and have focused on more urgent matters of revolution and civil war. For its foes, Israel is a secondary issue right now. That provides a measure of security, however temporary.
Today, the Arab Middle East, Israel's neighborhood, is in turmoil, distracted from its anti-Israel sentiment. Iran, meanwhile, has seen its principal allies, Syria and Hezbollah, coming under enormous pressure. but Hamas is weaker than ever. Syria is self-destructing. The Muslim Brotherhood is on its heels. As a result, Israel is the quietest, most stable, safest country in the region. But in the region more broadly, the only certainty is change.
For its foes, Israel is a secondary issue right now. That provides a measure of security, however temporary.
The extent of Israel's willingness to compromise with Palestinians will be determined in part by how its leaders perceive the state's strategic position in the midst of this paradox. If Israel is safer than ever, and they believe this is a relatively long term condition, the idea of withdrawing Israeli forces from the West Bank and letting the territory come under the control of a new country, the not particularly friendly or strong Arab country of Palestine, will seem a more tolerable risk. If, on the other hand, Israeli leaders view the country as encircled by an increasingly threatening maelstrom, they and the Israeli population -- which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises will have a vote on any deal -- will become more resistant to risky withdrawals.
From the day of its founding, the Jewish state has faced complicated security challenges. Every major political, diplomatic and military move has been viewed as potentially life-and-death decision. A mistake, Israelis believe, could lead to the end of their country. For decades polls have shown a majority of Israelis support the creation of Palestinian state. Underneath that support, however, lies a gnawing fear about whether a Palestinian state would become a base of operations against Israel, and potentially a key player if a major war breaks out, or if Iran attacks.
Israel's strategic position has already been transformed. On the northern border -- Syria, a country with which Israel has fought several wars and is still technically at war -- President Bashar al-Assad is in the midst of a brutal civil war. The conflict has left more than 100,000 Syrians dead. It has also torn the country apart, decimating Assad's military machine. Assad's forces obviously measure up to the opposition, but undoubtedly two years of fighting has degraded the Syrian army, with countless losses of armament and personnel.
The decision by Lebanon's Iran-backed militia Hezbollah -- one of Israel's most bitter foes -- to jump into the Syrian fray on Assad's side has also exacted an enormous cost. Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah concluded that Assad's fall would be catastrophic for his organization. By openly siding with Assad, he destroyed the group's once-mighty reputation in the Arab world. His participation has helped Assad stop rebel advances in Syria, but it is killing scores of Hezbollah fighters, using up their weapons stockpiles, and sharply eroding their support in and out of Lebanon.