The forgotten crisis

All eyes are on the Arab Spring but what about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, asks Alasdair Soussi

The year 2011 will be remembered for many things but none more so than the Arab Spring. As swathes of the Middle East rose up in open rebellion, decades-old authoritarian regimes once thought untouchable and ruling in spite of the popular will of their people were ousted with ruthless efficiency. Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was followed by Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

In 2012 the uprising in Syria is getting ever more bloody and talk is growing of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But what of the most intractable of Middle East conflicts: that between Israel and Palestine? And, how has the Arab Spring affected its many disparate parts? Hitherto the most talked about Arab issue of recent times, the pursuit of peace between the Jewish state and the Palestinian people has been overshadowed by the Arab uprisings, says Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa programme at London’s Chatham House.

“The Arab Spring was such a great and momentous event in the history of the Middle East and probably in world history that the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict was likely to be overshadowed. Also, people were so fed up about talking about the peace process – how an agreement was reached and then there was another round of violence like in 2008-09 followed by a plan here and a plan there and a summit here and a summit there – where ultimately nothing happened. There was also an element of wait and see – how the Arab Spring was going to affect the peace process and whether it was going to have a positive or negative or indifferent effect, but the Arab Spring was bound to take the headlines.”

Adam Keller, spokesman for the Israeli-based peace group Gush Shalom, agrees but points out the different impact of the Arab Spring on both sides of the conflict divide.

“There are no signs of the Arab Spring really arriving in Palestinian society.”

“To some degree the Arab Spring did overshadow the Palestinian issue. But on the other hand, I think that the possibility – to some, the threat – that the Arab Spring would arrive in Palestinian society also affected some moves, such as Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas’s greater assertiveness towards the US regarding the Palestinian UN bid for statehood last September. I think that should the Palestinian masses go out into the streets against the Palestinian Authority (PA), the PA would collapse like a house of cards. Mahmoud Abbas must keep that from happening, so he is more militant towards Israel. But so far, there are no signs of the Arab Spring really arriving in Palestinian society.”

As for its bearing on Israel, which, in Mubarak, lost its closest Arab ally in the uprisings, Keller is equally forthright.
“There was a surprisingly positive attitude in Israel to events in Egypt – some Egyptians were surprised at finding out how much Israelis followed events and how much they cared. The Israeli mass social protest movement last summer was clearly inspired by the Arab Spring, and some slogans and banners in the Tel Aviv demonstrations stated it explicitly, like ‘This is our Tahrir Square’ or ‘With wages low and prices sky high, we will fight like the Egyptians’.

“But attitudes changed drastically since the Islamist victories in the Egyptian parliamentary elections. It is now commonplace in Israel to repeat that nasty cliché about the Arab Spring turning into Islamist Winter.

“We on the left try to point out the positive side of free democratic elections, even if you don’t like the results. And who are we to complain, anyway, with the bunch of nationalists and racists dominating our own parliament freely and democratically elected? I don’t think we are soon going to hear again social protesters in Tel Aviv explicitly emulating Tahrir Square. A pity. Israelis regard the Islamist movements as a threat – not without reason, though this is very much manipulated and blown up.”

On Hamas the Arab Spring had very drastic strategic results

Hamas, the largest Palestinian militant Islamist organisation, which governs the territory of Gaza – the other Palestinian region of the West Bank is governed by the PA, in which the rival Fatah party dominates – has also been the subject of much political intrigue. The 1987-established group, which is designated a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the EU, has also been buffeted by the winds of change sweeping the region following the popular Arab revolts and the success of Islamist parties in elections, with the Gazan leadership in the Syrian capital Damascus mooting the idea of a strategic switch from armed struggle towards the path of popular non-violent resistance, contrary to the hardline leadership in Gaza itself.

“On Hamas the Arab Spring had very drastic strategic results for them,” explains Keller. “There has always been tension between the outside leadership, which is based in Damascus, and the internal one based in Gaza.

“Until the Arab Spring, Syria was giving Hamas a lot of support and Iran was giving a lot of money, while they had rather tense relations with former Egyptian president Mubarak, who collaborated with Israel in the 2008-09 siege of Gaza. Now nobody knows what could happen in Syria – Hamas could leave Damascus and Iran has cut them off because they don’t support Syrian president Bashar Assad. So the bottom line is a clear shift in the internal balance of forces in Hamas.”

As for the prospects of finding real and lasting peace between the state of Israel and the Palestinians in this atmosphere of change, Mekelberg, who contends that “Israel doesn’t understand the urgency of addressing the conflict” in a Middle East which “in two to five years could change completely”, believes that grounds for optimism are in short supply.

“On what would I base my optimism? Is it the leadership in Israel, the leadership in Palestine? Can civil society try to make the necessary changes? Some of them do their best but they are not strong enough.

“US President Obama hasn’t followed up on his good intentions, and when was the last time that the European Union came up with a common foreign and security policy on the matter?

“So, looking at all this evidence – and when especially in times of slack you would expect great leaders to make a breakthrough – I don’t see any great leadership around to be optimistic right now.”

Photo of Nablus graffiti: Victor Grigas

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