The stunning failure of the international commentariat to foresee the seismic shifts that are engulfing the Arab world is reason enough to be guarded about what commentators are now telling us about the causes and meaning of the uprisings.
Until events proved otherwise, many self-appointed experts confidently—sometimes arrogantly—explained that the global movement toward democracy had been spurned by the Arab world simply because liberty and equality were “not part of the Arab makeup.” So it must have come as quite a shock to them that the Arab people turned out to be not so different from the rest of the human race!
While the future course of events is not yet clear, there are certain tentative deductions that I believe we can risk making even now.
The first is the self-evident observation that there are opportunities and there are dangers, including, as witnessed in Libya and, potentially, Syria, the ominous prospect of prolonged civil wars in countries where the ruling powers decide to fight anti-government protesters to the bitter end. It is, perhaps, telling that the regimes that have always regarded themselves as “revolutionary” are among the last to come to terms with the new revolutionary mood.
Second, autocratic regimes plainly cannot be depended on to deliver “stability.” This is not altogether surprising, as there is usually no mechanism to change these brittle regimes that does not involve bringing down the whole system.
A third deduction is that nonviolent mass action is not the poor relative of an armed uprising but can often be more effective in achieving and sustaining change. Had the popular rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt been commandeered by men and women of the gun, they would probably have invited instant and overwhelming counterviolence by the respective regimes, which would have gladly seized the opportunity to crush the incipient protests.
Fourth, while the grievances of the Arab street may be similar, the contexts are different in each country. So it is not surprising if the revolutions—and the responses they provoke—take divergent paths.
Fifth, no one faction—religious, nationalist, or ideological—owns the revolution, except maybe the Arab youth, male and female, who have broken through the fear factor and are not prepared to swallow the old slogans, put up with a life of oppression, and suffer the alienation, hopelessness, and humiliations of their parents’ generation. However, this is not to say that there may not be an attempt by this or that political grouping to hijack one or another of the revolutions. Eternal vigilance on the part of the young revolutionaries, coupled with strong constitutional safeguards, will be vital to forestall such an eventuality, particularly during transitional phases.
Sixth, the new social media have revolutionized the way people communicate with each other and the potential for rapid mobilization. To the ruling old guard, putting down armed uprisings and attempted coups must have seemed like child’s play compared with the challenges presented by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Seventh, unlike the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 that, in the main, aimed to transform their despotic governances into Western European–style liberal democracies, the Arab uprisings seem not to have very clear models other than generally wanting to change the political systems. Whether this is a strength or a weakness is yet to be seen.
Finally, although there is undeniably a pan-Arab dimension to the unrest, as evidenced by its contagious quality, it seems clear that in each case the protests are essentially about the internal affairs of state rather than about Israel or Palestine.
However, if freedom truly spreads in the region, the denial of Palestinian rights and their lack of statehood will appear ever more anomalous even if, in the short term, copious media coverage of the Arab revolutions has largely knocked the Palestinian issue off the front pages, and the open brutality of the responses of some of the Arab regimes has diminished the common portrayal of Israel within the region as a uniquely repressive force.
How the Arab Revolutions Could Affect Israel/Palestine
What the regional explosions hold for the future are naturally of deep concern to the Palestinians, just as they are to the bewildered Israeli leadership, which seems unsure about which Arab horse to back. Prime Minister Netanyahu—seeing only the dangers—has donned his King Canute hat and tried to keep the tide at bay while President Shimon Peres—spotting the opportunities—has urged support for what he has termed a “great moment for the region” that could dramatically improve Israel’s circumstances.
Among the dangers that might preoccupy Netanyahu is the threat to one of Israel’s trump cards—its claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East.” If the Arab world is genuinely on the verge of joining the club of democratic nations—at a time when the right-wing Israeli parliament is introducing decidedly undemocratic legislation, and as the Israeli state has entered the forty-fifth year of its military occupation of a neighboring people—Israel could end up as the illiberal joker in a more enlightened regional pack.
Israel does, though, have a genuine concern that the long-standing peace treaties with two of its four immediate neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, could be at risk. So far, there is no indication of any moves being made to nullify these treaties and, barring the improbable takeover of these countries by extreme ideological factions, or possibly another prolonged Israeli bombardment of Gaza that causes widespread casualties, it is unlikely to happen, at least not formally.
If the treaties were to be unilaterally terminated on the Arab side, this could be the first hazardous step on the road to a full-blooded war. But war is not what the youthful rebellions are about. More in keeping with their spirit are the themes of peace, harmony, justice, and dignity, echoes of which may be detected in the similarly astonishing social protest movement suddenly taking Israel by storm.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s early public boast that “there is only one country in the whole of the Middle East that has no troubles, no protests—that’s Israel” speaks again not only to the myopia of his leadership but also to the growing, if ambivalent, realization that Israel is part of the Middle East. One of the slogans of the Israeli tent protestors, “The people demand social justice,” has an obvious resonance with a popular slogan across the Arab world: “The people demand the fall of the regime.” Another Israeli slogan was even more blunt: “Mubarak, Assad, Netanyahu!”
Although the demands of this burgeoning youthful movement, while broadening, are still relatively modest and inward-looking, there is no knowing how far the Israeli awakening may go. It could fizzle out in the face of a few concessions, or it could be diverted by real or fabricated external threats. Most likely, there will be attempts to divide it from within. But if it stays the course and starts to make the connections between unaffordable housing and pockets of poverty in Israeli towns and generously subsidized living in the settlements of the West Bank, it could mature into an authentic political movement with consequences as far-reaching as the youthful uprisings elsewhere in the region.
Such a development could have the effect of boosting the reputation of Israelis everywhere. President Peres is not mistaken in observing that the potential now exists for all the peoples of the region, including both Palestinians and Israelis, to aspire to a better, more hopeful life. But the potential for Israel to become ever more isolated also exists. The destiny of the Jewish state now depends to a large extent on how the Israeli government chooses to play its cards in the face of the new challenges. Above all, there is a compelling need for Israel to bring its occupation of Palestinian territory to a swift end, making way for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If the Palestinians do not gain freedom in their own independent state, there is no prospect at all for Israel being accepted into the region.
This is not a new observation—it has been around for decades—but now time is seriously running out. Beginning in September, when the UN General Assembly holds its annual meeting, the exasperated Palestinians—frustrated by U.S. reluctance or impotence—are preparing to turn their backs on the protracted farce of bilateral negotiations. Barring an improbable dramatic breakthrough between now and then, we are likely to see a new face to Palestinian strategy and tactics as the Palestinians seek to “internationalize” the issue on the one hand and simultaneously “Palestinianize” it on the other.
Why September, exactly? For one thing, it marks the anniversary of the aspiration voiced by President Obama at the General Assembly last September to secure a Middle East deal “within a year” that would lead to a new member, Palestine, being welcomed into the world organization. For another, it coincides with the end of the two-year period of infrastructure-and-institution-building proclaimed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who heads the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, in preparation for the declaration of a Palestinian state.
UN Recognition of a Palestinian State?
Despite the pressure and threats from the Israeli and U.S. governments, the Palestinians, with the backing of the Arab League, appear set to overcome any misgivings of their own and to persist down this path by calling on all countries to recognize a Palestinian state within the pre-June 1967 boundaries, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and for the new state to be granted full UN membership. Not less than 130 of the 193 member states—many of them not at all hostile to Israel—are expected to support this proposition.
The positions of the twenty-seven members of the European Union are uncertain as this piece goes to press in early September, but if France and the United Kingdom choose not to exercise their vetoes at the Security Council, that would leave the United States exposed once again as the sole backer of the Israeli position. For the second time in less than a year, the United States would find itself in the unenviable position of vetoing a resolution whose sentiments it is on record as supporting (the previous occasion was in February 2011 when it voted against a resolution on Israeli settlements).
Facing the prospect of further isolating itself internationally at the behest of a recalcitrant Israeli government—which itself ostensibly supports two states—the Obama administration may be tempted at the last moment to abstain (although don’t hold your breath). Should this happen, the resolution would almost certainly then be approved by the General Assembly with the requisite two-thirds majority (requiring 129 positive votes). This would leave Israel, with its military bases in the West Bank, in the invidious position of being in daily violation of the sovereign territory of an independent UN member-state. In many respects, Israel’s legal position would be a nightmare.
Additionally, or alternatively, the Palestinians could call for an international protectorate or custodianship to take control of the occupied territories for a transitional period pending actual independence. Such an interim arrangement might be seen as less confrontational and enable the Israelis to hand over occupied territory in the first instance to an authority it might view as less threatening.
They could also adopt, as official policy, a vigorous campaign to isolate and boycott Israel internationally, and systematically use the panoply of mechanisms available under international law to prosecute the Israeli state and its agents.
A Renewed Push for Palestinian National Unity
A complementary “Palestinianization” strategy will depend largely on the recent efforts between Fatah and Hamas toward national unity—brokered by the new Egyptian government—not collapsing.
A strong challenge to both Palestinian factions to stop the internal squabbling was issued by the youthful March 15 movement, following demonstrations by tens of thousands of young Palestinians earlier this year in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Additionally, Fatah was conscious of the loss of patronage of the former Egyptian President Mubarak, and Hamas was similarly concerned by the turmoil facing its Syrian benefactor.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas also wanted to present an image of a united Palestinian front before seeking UN recognition. So on May 4 an accord was signed to form an interim government of technocrats to prepare for new elections within a year. But by June the reconciliation had run into trouble—largely because of a dispute over the post of interim prime minister—and further talks were postponed indefinitely, casting doubt over the long-term viability of the unity deal.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tossed in his own lethal oar by declaring that President Abbas could not hope to forge a peace deal with Israel if he pursued a reconciliation accord with Hamas: “The Palestinian Authority must choose either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas.”
This is, of course, a false choice because peace with Israel is not on offer to the Palestinians on terms anywhere near minimally acceptable to even the most accommodating of them. It is also disingenuous, as Netanyahu knows peace cannot be attained with only part of the Palestinian people, a point he has often stressed himself in the past when it suited him.
We may soon see the pumping of new life and the attracting of a new generation into ossified Palestinian political agencies such as the PLO and its legislative body, the Palestinian National Council. These bodies had been allowed to atrophy after the Palestinian Authority took centre stage in May 1994 under the Oslo Accords, in the thwarted belief that statehood was just five years away. A reinvigorated PLO would embrace a much broader constituency than the Palestinian Authority by seeking to include Hamas and the diaspora Palestinians plus, potentially, Palestinian citizens of Israel.
In addition, a popular campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience may erupt in the occupied West Bank. The protests—likely to be dubbed a third intifada—could take the form of mass demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, strikes, or other innovative actions that may evolve through creative use of new social media. Settlers, settlements, and other symbols of the Occupation would probably be the principal targets of the protests.
A Risky, Last-Ditch Strategy: Force Israel to Govern the West Bank?
A volatile and desperate option of last resort might be for the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself altogether and return the West Bank to direct Israeli rule. That would bring an end to the limited experiment of Palestinian autonomy, but the greater cost might be borne by Israel, if only because the Israeli state would then presumably have to finance all municipal and other services, including the security agencies, from its own coffers, for it is unlikely in such a circumstance that the EU and other funding sources would continue with their munificence. Such a move could cause mayhem but, in desperation, cannot be ruled out.
However, Israel’s capacity to retaliate in the form of unilateral annexations of some parts of the West Bank and unilateral withdrawals from other parts should not be discounted. The annexed areas would, we may suppose, include all or most of the territory on which Israeli settlements have been built—although there may be some consolidation—together with the surrounding infrastructure and modern road system.
The annexed area might also incorporate the Jordan Valley, representing around 29 percent of the area of the West Bank and 47 percent of its total water resources, which Israeli governments have often claimed as the state’s vital “security border” to prevent armies or missiles from infiltrating the land from the east to attack Israel. The areas from which Israel pulls out—probably all or most of the heavily populated Palestinian cities—might then be fenced off and left to their own fate, with or without a Palestinian Authority to govern them and represent their interests internationally.
Should Israel move to take such unilateral actions, it would no doubt invite instant condemnation by most of the world. It would be an advantage to the Palestinians in terms of international sympathy and support, but game, set, and maybe match to Israel in terms of creating new and possibly irreversible facts on the ground. For a few years at least, Israel might find itself increasingly isolated as the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement extends its appeal globally and governments around the world vent ineffectual fury. For the foreseeable future, Israel would entrench itself as a pariah state and the Israeli people would be forced to live with the consequences. Jews around the world would not be immune to the effects either. Even the pro-Israel sympathy of the U.S. government and people might steadily erode.
For their part, the Palestinians would have suffered a heavy—maybe mortal—blow in their quest for an independent state and the exercise of self-determination and might now find their other policy options to be extremely limited, too, apart from possibly enforced absorption back into the Jordanian state. Far from leading to their quiescence, this consequence could be a recipe for perpetual conflict with no winners. The only sure way to avoid such a disastrous outcome is to move swiftly toward the endgame based on two viable states.
Conditions for the Success of a Two-State Solution
If President Obama is, disappointingly, not ready, willing, and able to drive a bold two-state peace initiative himself, it is up to other leading members of the UN Security Council, preferably with the fulsome backing of the Arab League, to swiftly initiate a process to determine the shape of a final resolution—what it would broadly look like is not a mystery—and to fashion potent inducements, positive and negative, for the conflicting parties to meet their respective interim targets along a fixed timetable toward the final destination.
As part of this process, and for it to succeed, a range of untenable positions held by the different parties would need to be vigorously challenged. Take a couple of examples:
After September, in the wake of the failure by Israel and the PLO to achieve a negotiated peace, some Western governments may contemplate engaging cautiously with Hamas. There is much to be said for this as Hamas, like Fatah, reflects a major Palestinian political current that cannot be wished away. However, the Islamic movement is likely to find its progress toward international legitimacy severely curtailed so long as it fails to openly purge its Covenant of its virulently anti-Semitic content, crudely reminiscent of the notorious Tsarist-era forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in blaming Jews for virtually all the ills of the world, currently and historically.
Informally, some Hamas leaders credibly claim the Covenant to be largely dormant and outdated—in three separate places, for example, it refers to the “Communist East”—but even the most obliging Western governments and civil society groups may be hard-pressed to defend formal relations with a political faction that remains officially associated with the sort of imported racist bilge to which Christian Europe was once committed but from which post–World War II Europe has, in the main, avidly striven to distance itself.
Calls for the eradication of the Israeli state and its predominantly Jewish character, however formulated, also need to be looked at critically by any party that is serious about ending the conflict. The rhetoric alone is enough to revive the Jewish fear of genocide, or minimally of discrimination and persecution, and meet with fierce resistance. In light of their history, it is hard to imagine Israeli Jews of almost any stripe voluntarily sacrificing their hard-won national independence to become a minority again in someone else’s land.
These are among the bullets that Hamas needs to bite if it is to be part of the solution. And if it is not part of the solution, probably there won’t be a solution.
A Sticking Point: Israel’s Demand for Recognition as a “Jewish State”
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that there is no peace because the Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel “as a Jewish state.” But this explicit Israeli demand is a new requirement and is widely viewed by Palestinians as a deliberate raising of the bar in order to avoid doing a deal, so that the settlement-expansion program may continue unabated. Even if they were to accede to this demand, the Palestinian assumption is that a new obstacle would then be invented.
The same demand was not made of Egypt or Jordan when the peace treaties with these countries were negotiated, nor of the PLO itself when it recognized Israel under the Oslo Accords. Nor for that matter was it made of any other country, although it has always been understood to be implicit (and sufficient). The name “Israel” is itself something of a giveaway.
The situation could be compared with that of the former Soviet Union, which did not insist that other countries recognize it as a “communist state,” but this is what the title “Soviet Union” implied and everyone understood this. Had it insisted on explicit recognition as a communist state, it would have invited refusals. In common parlance, however, people used the terms “Soviet Union” and “communist state” interchangeably as they do today with Israel and the Jewish state, including in the Arab world.
The Israeli government knows—or should know—that the Palestinians cannot explicitly accede to its new demand without appearing to legitimize all that happened to them in the past or what could happen to the million-plus Palestinian citizens of Israel in the future. Maybe this is part of the Israeli intention, as to accept this formulation would be tantamount to the Palestinians acknowledging they are a defeated people. Yet the Israeli government and its international backers seem determined to cite this reluctance as evidence that the Palestinians—and the Arab world at large—still resolutely deny Israel’s right to exist and seek its destruction, even though the PLO has repeatedly affirmed this right (amazingly, in a way) since at least 1993, and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 calls for full peace and normalization of relations between Israel and all Arab states in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the territories it captured in 1967.
It is important to understand that, despite the bellicose claims sometimes made, Palestinian animosity toward Israel stems primarily not from it being a Jewish state but from the huge disruption the creation of that state and its ongoing policies have inflicted on the lives, dignity, and destiny of the Palestinian people, including its right to self-determination. It would not have been profoundly different had the state in question not been Jewish but, say, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, or even Muslim.
In the heat of today’s arguments, what is often forgotten is that even asking other states to recognize Israel’s “right to exist” (let alone as “a Jewish state”) has in the past been seen as demeaning. Abba Eban, Israel’s formidable foreign minister from 1966 to 1974, wrote in November 1981: “Nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its ‘right to exist.’ It is disturbing to find so many people well-disposed to Israel giving currency to this contemptuous formulation.” Menachem Begin, former leader of the same right-wing Likud party that Benjamin Netanyahu heads today, avowed to the Knesset in June 1977: “I wish to declare that the government of Israel will not ask any nation, be it near or far, mighty or small, to recognize our right to exist.”
A formulation that was suggested to me some years ago by a leading Israeli constitutional lawyer would have Israel define itself as “a state of all its citizens, in which the Jewish people exercises its self-determination.” Such a formulation would have the advantage of not contradicting the “democratic” part of a “Jewish democratic state”; it may well be acceptable to the Palestinians who might be challenged to adopt, mutatis mutandis, a similar construct with regard to their own future state—thus ensuring that any settlers who choose to stay and accept Palestinian citizenship are accorded full rights—and would remove an entirely unnecessary obstacle to peacemaking.
So this is one of the bullets that, in turn, the Israeli government needs to bite if it is serious about making progress toward an agreed end of conflict.
When President Obama took office in January 2009, many commentators (including myself) opined that the president had two to three years to cajole the parties into swiftly ending this conflict before he moved into reelection mode. The alternative, it was suggested, was a future of indefinite strife with deeply troubling global ramifications. If this was a petard, we are now well and truly “hoist” with it, as time is almost up. If, as it appears, the fading opportunity is not swiftly seized by the U.S. administration, by the international community, or by the conflicting parties themselves, what hope is there? The answer may lie in the one extraordinary development that none of us foresaw: the Arab awakening—now coupled, it seems, with a similarly extraordinary Israeli awakening. If Israel is to have a future in the region of which it chose to be a part, it is now up to its leaders and the whole nation to join the new tide and seize the opportunities while they remain alive.