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Israel, The Arab Spring and the Map of Despair

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Back in the 70s in every Jewish communal building, school and synagogue you would see the powerful image of 'the map'.

At its centre was Israel, a shining, white slither of land with its back to the Mediterranean Sea. Surrounding it there was only darkness. From the Atlantic to the Euphrates, shaded opaque, was the vast land mass that made up the 22 states of the Arab world: the Jewish homeland's sworn enemies bent on her destruction. Back then it was a black-and-white issue.

Thirty four years after Egypt's President Anwar Sadat's historic flight to Jerusalem 'the map' may have become ever more redundant but as a mind-set, for Israel and many of her supporters, it has stood the test of time.

After Egypt came peace with Jordan and recognition of Israel's right to exist by the PLO. In 2002, Saudi Arabia proposed a peace plan. Soon after, Saddam Hussein went to the gallows and now Libya's Gaddafi, once an enthusiastic sponsor of Palestinian terror groups, is finished. The Gulf States just want to make money while Morocco and Tunisia were always moderate.

Come the Arab Spring and the states on 'the map' are going through the most dramatic upheaval since the end of World War Two. Now even the notorious Assad dynasty in Syria is on the skids. A by-product of the heroic democracy protests sweeping the region will be the overthrow of Israel's historic enemy, the patron of Hamas and Hezbollah and the key regional ally of Iran.

Good news for Israel? Not if you'd seen the gloomy countenance of Major General (Res) Danny Rothschild, the head of a leading Israeli think-tank, who delivered a lecture the Royal United Services Institute, in London last week. For General Rothschild the glass of peace will always be half empty.

Irritatingly, the director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzilya, dismissed the epic struggle for democracy and human rights across the Middle East as the "Islamist Spring."

No good would come of it, warned Gen. Rothschild. Iran would manipulate change for its own nefarious, nuclear ends and the protesters for freedom were jihadis in disguise. And what of the possibilities thrown up by the Syrian democracy movement? Not a word passed his taciturn lips.

For Rothschild 'the map' was not being torn up by the dash for democracy, just reconfigured for another epoch of confrontation and war. It was Jews v the rest; the next chapter.

Unfortunately, this 'siege state' narrative (wish fulfilment or warning?) still has the most traction among the Israeli public and plenty of backing among the Jewish Diaspora. Too few voices are calling for bold, out-of-the-box thinking to match the seismic change of the Arab Spring.

Instead, "Security," as defined by military men such as Gen. Rothschild, has become the eleventh commandment for Israelis. In fairness, having lived with the fear of war since the nation's birth they have learnt to cherish their F-16s and M-16s. A 30-year-old from Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem, for example, has survived the Scud bombardment by Saddam Hussein in 1990, the second Intifada (2000-04) and the horrors wrought by Islamic suicide bombers, and the Hezbollah missile blitz of the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

If you don't recognise how this type of warfare aimed at civilians can twist a nation's psyche, you are not really entitled to join the debate about how to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict.

But Israel's historic anxiety has been exploited by the 'strategy of paranoia', fuelled by morose generals and hyperbolic journalists, that the aggressive right-wingers now running Israel are the most enthusiastic purveyors.

For your average Israeli it means just clinging to the status quo and self-medicating on consumerism. As a leading Israeli political insider colourfully put it: "We are currently in the process of enjoying the buffet on the Titanic."

But whilst Israel still believes in 'the map' it will remain on the road to nowhere.