There is now a fence between Lieutenant Colonel Yoav Tilan and Egypt, and Tilan is clearly pleased about it. The fence is five meters (16 feet) tall and topped with shiny, sharp spikes. For good measure, the fence is flanked by three rows of barbed wire and an antitank ditch. From Israel's perspective, there is a good reason for the precautions. Egypt is now a perceived enemy. Seven months ago, killers crossed the border from Egypt and attacked busses and cars, killing eight Israelis.
"The border is hot," says Tilan, noting that it is now Israel's most dangerous. Border incidents, including gunfire and attempts to demolish the fence, have become an almost daily occurrence. Israeli authorities have also found explosives on several occasions.
Until recently, Tilan's job wasn't exactly a career-making position. Aside from drug smuggling, the area was so quiet that mostly reservists were sent there. In some places, the border wasn't even properly secured, consisting only of a rusty barbed-wire fence, often buried under sand and patrolled by Bedouins trained to read tracks in the desert. It was a tedious job, but revealed that illegal border crossings were common, including transgressions by off-road vehicles.
Indeed, Tilan's unit used to spend most of its time scooping up refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, more than 50,000 with a few years. The refugees were the motivation behind building the fence in the first place. But then came the revolution in Egypt, and explosions targeted the gas pipeline to Israel that runs through the Sinai Peninsula a total of 13 times. And then, on Aug. 18, 2011, came the attack. After that, the government sent in elite troops, special police units, a reconnaissance brigade and armored vehicles. It also sped up construction of the fence.
Cutting the Cord
Israel has been reacting in recent months the way it so often does when threatened: by walling itself in. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank disappeared behind security walls some time ago. There are high fences along the country's other borders, as well as land mines, but now it wants to improve border security even further by building a high-tech system like the one on the border with Egypt.
The Jewish state has tried to integrate itself into the Middle East for decades. Now it is trying to cut the cord between itself and the surrounding region, blocking out the changes in its neighborhood.
A year after the beginning of the Arab rebellions, it has become a story of mistrust, fear and apathy. Politicians like President Shimon Peres had long dreamed of a "new Middle East," a zone of democracy and freedom. But now that a new Middle East is in fact taking shape, the majority of Israelis and their government are not welcoming it. Although they want democratic neighbors, they are afraid of the democratization process, especially its uncertainties, as well as the instability and loss of control. No one knows yet what the new Middle East will look like, but the government has already decided that it is better to curl up into a ball than explore its options.
Israel's caution is understandable. Turmoil in the region has often embroiled the country in wars. Three times since the beginning of the recent uprisings, Arabs have tried to storm the Israeli border from Lebanon and Syria, most recently last week. But precisely for this reason, it is astonishing to see how little initiative the country is taking to achieve lasting peace in the region, even as it pulls out all the stops to ward off the more abstract threat of a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. In fact, if Israel truly intends to attack Iran, it will be all the more important for it to emerge from its isolation.
Israel sees itself as a "villa in the jungle," as Israeli politicians say, a vulnerable island of civilization surrounded by Islamists, as if Israel were not the most politically influential and militarily powerful force in the region. It's telling that in Israel the Arab Spring is merely referred to as the "Islamic Winter." Israelis like to point out that Gaza is an illustration of what happens when Islamists come into power, even though it hardly qualifies as an example.
'Moving Backward, Not Forward'
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is quick to disabuse anyone who believes that the uprisings could also have positive consequences. The Arab rebellion is developing into an "Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave," the premier said in November. According to Netanyahu, the Arab world is "moving not forward, but backward," and anyone who believes Arabs and democracy are compatible is naïve.
Have the politicians' scare tactics worked? Or is Netanyahu merely expressing what his people think? In surveys, half of Israelis say that the uprisings would have a negative impact on their country. Shortly before Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak was toppled, two-thirds of Israelis thought that this would be bad for their country. And now, as even children are being murdered in Syria, more than one in four Israelis is still convinced that bringing down the person responsible for the massacres, Syrian President Bashar Assad, would not be a good thing.
"If there is one lesson we have learned from the uprisings, it is that we must be strong," says a government advisor who prefers not to be named. Stability, security and strength -- that is Netanyahu's mantra. For him, the Arab revolutions mean no concessions, because Israel's policy, as he says, cannot be "based on illusions." One of these illusions is that peace is possible.
But what could Israel's relationship with the Arab world look like in the future? Three Israelis who are closer to the Arab world than most people in Israel explain their views of what the future could hold. The first is Lieutenant Colonel Tilan, the border patrol officer. The other two are Yitzhak Levanon, Israel's ambassador to Egypt until recently, and Lior Ben-Dor, the Foreign Ministry's Arabic media spokesman. Tilan defends Israel, Levanon represents it and Ben-Dor campaigns on its behalf.
Twice as High
At the border in the south, Tilan watches as welders reinforce the fence. The five-meter fence here is no longer high enough so they are now making it twice as high, hoping that it will prevent people from firing across it from the other side. The workers complete 400 meters (1,312 feet) a day, and the entire 240 kilometers (150 miles) are expected to be finished by the end of the year.
"Terrorists will still find ways to penetrate into Israel, by digging tunnels, attacking the fence or coming by sea," says the lieutenant colonel. According to Tilan, several groups in the Sinai Peninsula are currently preparing attacks. "Our cooperation with the Egyptians is seasonal. It depends on them how much resistance they..." -- Tilan corrects himself: "…how they want to govern the Sinai." The suspicions run deep, despite the fact that Israeli and Egyptian officials meet regularly, sometimes at the border crossing and sometimes at the fence, remaining on their respective sides -- a cautious rapprochement.
The new isolation is more evident in southern Israel than anywhere else. In Eilat on the Red Sea, the hotels are lined up along the shore, hemmed in by the Jordanian port city of Aqaba to the East and the Egyptian town of Taba to the West. In the past, Israelis ventured in both directions, but since the uprisings they have chosen to remain in Eilat, a 10-kilometer strip of land between the two borders.
Egypt, Jordan and also Turkey were long Israel's most important allies in the region. But this diplomatic network is dissolving, and new alliances with Greece, Cyprus and South Sudan have done little to help so far. By no means does the fault lie entirely with Israel, but it has also done little to improve relations. It chose not to reconcile with Turkey, and it has refused to accommodate the Palestinians at all.
Warnings against Passivity and Pessimism
In December Levanon, 67, was one of the last Israelis in Cairo, where he attended a farewell event at which the Egyptian intelligence chief gave him a model of a Pharaonic chariot. Levanon, Israel's ambassador to Egypt for more than a year, is a slim, white-haired man who can tell jokes in Arabic that even Egyptians find funny.
Levanon was in Cairo on the day in September when an agitated mob stormed the Israeli Embassy there. He was sitting in his apartment, watching the events unfold on television. He saw that policemen were standing in front of the embassy, but that they did not stop people from breaking down the walls around the building with hammers. Levanon called everyone he knew, including diplomats, intelligence officials and employees at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. In the end, an Egyptian special-forces unit rescued the Israeli guards. Then the ambassador and his staff were flown out of the country.
"It made me sad and furious, not so much at these people but at the Mubarak regime," says Levanon. "It's a consequence of a policy that allowed the hatred to grow for decades." Mubarak was a reliable partner, on the one hand, says Levanon. On the other hand, he allowed his newspapers to agitate against Israel, creating a release valve for the anger of the poor.
Levanon's successor lives in a hotel and travels home on weekends. The entire contents of the embassy were just flown to Tel Aviv on two cargo planes. Will there ever be a real embassy again? The new wind that is blowing from Egypt isn't exactly reassuring, says Levanon. Only a few weeks ago, a committee in the Egyptian parliament declared Israel to be Egypt's "Public Enemy Number One," and recommended expelling the Israeli ambassador and terminating natural gas exports to Israel. At the same time, the ruling military council just appointed a new ambassador to Tel Aviv and brokered a cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In doing so, the council has made it clear that it has not changed its position.
'Little to Do with Us'
"What is happening in the Arab countries has little to do with us," says Levanon. Israel, he adds, has to give them time and, in the meantime, establish contact with all sides. It was this line of thinking that prompted Levanon to recommend talking to the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after Mubarak was ousted. "But it was turned down." Levanon believes that it could be too late for that now, while officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry feel that it's still too early.
Israel is also restrained on the issue of Syria, and no Israeli politician has publicly called for Assad's resignation. Israel doesn't want to harm the opposition with public statements, says an advisor to the government. But many Arabs will likely interpret this as tacit support for the Assad regime.
It took a year before the Israeli foreign minister said, in early March: "The Jewish nation cannot sit by and do nothing while citizens of our neighboring country are being slaughtered." Although Israel could not intervene, he added, "it's our moral obligation to at least extend humanitarian aid and to call upon the world to stop the massacres."
Ironically, it is precisely those who were once responsible for the nation's security who are now warning against passivity and pessimism. "Obviously Israel is in the eye of the storm, but it behaves as if it were not involved in the events," writes Efraim Halevi, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. Halevi insists that the uprising in Syria is an invaluable boon for Israel, because it has shattered the axis joining Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. The latter have just questioned their support for Iran in the event of an Israeli attack. And if the Syrian aid for Hezbollah were to dry up, perhaps even Lebanon could look forward to a second Cedar Revolution.
Addressing the Arabs on Facebook
Others, like former intelligence chiefs Ami Ayalon and Meïr Dagan, advocate negotiations with the Palestinians to counter Israel's growing isolation, but the government is doing nothing -- at a time when every bit of progress would help preserve the peace with Egypt and strengthen the king in Jordan. Jordan is still quiet, but the virus of the Arab rebellion is already in the country. King Abdullah II, hoping to placate his people, has recently made public remarks critical of Israel. He hasn't sent an ambassador to Tel Aviv in two years, while the Israeli Embassy in Amman is under tighter security than many a central bank. When two Israeli psychiatrists gave a lecture in Amman recently, hundreds of students protested in front of the university. Security forces had to take the two Israelis out a back door.
Such incidents illustrate why Israel feels so threatened. On the other hand, the country has done little to address the people in neighboring countries directly, it was enough to negotiate with their rulers. The government ought to approach the Arabs now, and yet not a single Israel politician has addressed the demonstrators in Cairo or Tunis in a speech. Nevertheless, the country is cautiously putting out its feelers via the Internet.
Lior Ben-Dor, 43, is linked to exactly 103,199 Arabs, who have subscribed to the Foreign Ministry's Facebook page. The page, called "Israel Speaks Arabic," was created a year ago.
Ben-Dor, the Foreign Ministry's Arabic media spokesman, is Israel's face on Al-Jazeera. But Ben-Dor has also become active on the Internet, where he tries to tear down the walls Israel is building. He uses chats to oppose anti-Israeli propaganda, but his is only a quiet voice in a noisy environment. "After all, we don't know which of these people might become important. Or perhaps someone will just talk to his friends about Israel and stick up for us." Even Ben-Dor knows that this is little more than a vague hope.
'Little Has Changed'
He has just posted a video featuring the Israeli singer Dudu Aharon, and a dialogue is unfolding beneath the video. Between comments like "One day we'll exterminate you" and "Go to hell," there are also those who write: "Great singer." Ben-Dor's staff has weeded out 10 of 17 comments, which is about normal.
They prefer to post music videos or images of the beach in Tel Aviv. The message is simple: Israel is a harmless country where life is good. "Whenever someone indicates that he is open to our arguments, I write to him," says Ben-Dor. Sometimes he spends hours in a single chat, and he recently had a long discussion with an Egyptian journalist.
While Ben-Dor is chatting, a pencil drawing of Jordan's King Hussein is looking over his shoulder. He has drawn them all: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. A few months ago, he began posting his drawings on Facebook. The drawing of Assad was especially popular, partly because of the caption Ben-Dor had written next to it in Arabic: "I love my people to death."
Some 11,401 people clicked on the Assad drawing, 141 commented and 98 "liked" it. One user wrote: "Dear Israel, largest democracy in the Middle East, who will replace Assad when he is gone?" Another wrote: "Assad is a coward. He should get out." These are the kinds of responses Ben-Dor likes. "Many Arabs have never spoken with Israelis, and for many a chat with me is the first time." They have become more curious, says Ben-Dor, now that their rulers are gone, and they are asking new questions.
There are positive signs at the individual level, says the diplomat. "But by and large little has changed. They don't hate us any less than before. But not any more than before, either."