The Arab Spring and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Posted: December 9, 2011 by Rex Brynen in conferences, peace process
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I’m just headed home from a very enjoyable Chatham House conference on the “Arab Spring” and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting was part of the continuing Minster Lovell process, although unlike most of these it had no particular focus on the Palestinian refugee issue. It also took place against the very nice backdrop of Ma’in hot springs in Jordan, thereby continuing the tradition (for good or ill) of having meetings in lovely places that look absolutely nothing at all like refugee camps.

Discussion was rich and views were varied, making it impossible to provide an overall summary of workshop conclusions. Instead, I’ll offer my own take-away on the issues raised, with the caveat that others who were there may have very different views on these topics.

  • The Arab Spring might be a transformative event for the region, but it isn’t a transformative watershed for Israeli-Palestinian relations or the peace process. Instead, the apparent inability to move the peace process forward is largely due to Israeli and Palestinian reasons (compounded, as noted later, by dysfunctional diplomacy by the international community). Continued Palestinian political divisions are part of the reason for the stalemate. Far more fundamental are the problems on the Israeli side, and in particular the current Netanyahu government that has no interest in seeing the establishment of a viable Palestinian state on reasonable terms. In the context of such rejectionism, getting the parties to the negotiating table serves little purpose, other than to delegitimize negotiations (especially if it takes place in the context of continuing illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem).
  • The Arab Spring was one of the factors contributing to the Palestinian decision to pursue recognition at the United Nations, as Mahmud Abbas responded to growing public expectations. The process also gives the Palestinians a new set of diplomatic options, and a potential source of pressure that can be intensified or relaxed with changing circumstances.
  • The Arab Spring was also a factor in the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation agreement, due to increased Palestinian domestic expectations as well as changing regional circumstances (such the impact of events in Syria on Hamas, as well as renewed Egyptian mediation). However, there is still enormous distance to be travelled: a technocratic national unity government must be agreed, elections must be held, rival Fateh- and Hamas- controlled security services must be unified—all against a backdrop of continued political rivalry, hostility from Israel to any involvement of Hamas in the PA, and donor suspicion.
  • The transition in Egypt remains uncertain, but it is clear that a future, more representative Egyptian government will be much colder to Israel than was the Mubarak dictatorship. Even if the Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and al-Nour Party (Salafists) carry their initial success in the current parliamentary elections into subsequent round (and I’m sure they will), this does not necessarily mean an end to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. A remilitarization of relations with Israel would be enormously expensive for Egypt, both in terms of increased defence expenditures and the almost certain loss of US aid. This could compromise efforts efforts at economic recovery—and the ever-pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood knows it.
  • We didn’t spend much time talking about Egypt’s partial loss of control over the Sinai, evidenced in increased tensions with the Bedouins, increased arms smuggling, attacks on the gas pipeline to Israel, and the cross-border attack near Eilat in August (initially blamed by Israel on the Popular Resistance Committees, but possibly conducted by a much more ad hoc group of militants inside and outside Gaza). This will be a continuing source of tension with Israel, and a possible flashpoint if there is a future high-casualty terrorist attack.
  • Events in Syria have major geostrategic implications, especially if the Asad regime falls in a way that severs Syria’s longstanding alliance with Iran and results in a downgrading of relations with Hizbullah. Such an outcome would certainly be a major loss for Iran and Hizbullah, and a gain for Israel. Israel, on the other hand, has always had a “predictable enemy” in the Asad regimes, and is also nervous at the possible implications of continuing instability in Syria, or the rise of an unpredictable populist nationalist regime (especially given Syria’s possession of a significant chemical weapon stockpile). Despite Hamas losing Damascus as a functional headquarters as the Syrian civil war intensifies, there is no reason to believe that it will suffer in the same way in the longer term. Hamas (unlike Hizbullah) has not been seen by Syrians as a supporter of the Ba’thist regime, and a great many Palestinian refugees in Syria have been sympathetic to the protesters. It doesn’t hurt that they are Sunnis either, given the sectarian undercurrents of some contemporary Syrian politics.
  • We didn’t much discuss the prospects for Jordan (perhaps because we were in Jordan, which generates particular sensitivities). I think the Hashemite regime will weather the storm, albeit with political damage. It will continue to emphasize the unity of Jordan AND play the East Bank vs. Palestinian card as serve its purposes. Any substantial reform in Jordan (and I am doubtful we will see that) would also shine an inevitable spotlight on the situation of Palestinians in the country.
  • Overall, we are likely to see greater support for the Palestinian cause in the wake of the Arab Spring among Arab regimes that are more sensitive to public opinion. This will be partly limited for the next few years, however, by a preoccupation with domestic issues in transitional countries. Moreover, I don’t think that an increase in Arab support actually makes a huge difference to Israeli-Palestinian negotiating dynamics. Instead, as suggested earlier, Israeli and Palestinian factors are more important.
  • A critical issue, therefore, is how the Arab Spring plays out within Israeli politics. As one colleague noted, events of the past year are refracted by most Israelis through the prism of their preexisting political views. Those who support a two state solution see the Arab Spring as further highlighting the need for peace, lest Israel otherwise find itself isolated in an increasingly hostile and Islamist regional environment. Israeli hardliners, on the other hand, tend to view recent events as confirmation of their view that the Middle East is a dangerous and unpredictable place, with Islamic radicalism lurking around every corner. In such a context, they would argue, it would be foolish to make risky territorial compromises with an unstable and potentially hostile Palestine. This view, of course, was articulated by Benjamin Netanyahu in his Knesset speech late last month, when he warned that “Israel is facing a period of instability and uncertainty in the region. This is certainly not the time to listen to those who say follow your heart,” and declared “I will not establish Israel’s policy on illusions. There’s a huge upheaval here…whoever doesn’t see it is burying his head in the sand.” I think that the alarmist view has a marginal advantage in this battle of interpretations—and in Israeli politics, even marginal shifts in public opinion can be important. On top of this, as Daniel Levy recently noted in Foreign Affairs, political and demographic trends in Israel tends favour the religious and nationalist camp. As a result, not only will Israel be increasingly less inclinded to reasonable compromise, but the Arab Spring will tend to reinforce this reluctance.
  • A wild card in all of this is the Israeli economy and related social dynamics. There was considerable discussion at the meeting of the (partly) Tahrir-square inspired Israeli social protests over the summer, and whether they would either shift the Israeli domestic balance or make conceptual connections between issues of Israeli social and economic development and Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. To date they haven’t. The Israeli participants also expressed considerable dismay at the state of Israeli democracy, given efforts to limit NGOs, criminalize commemoration of the Nakba, endorse boycotts, or otherwise freely express political views.
  • On the Palestinian side, the Arab Spring has created a sense that some historical momentum has been regained, and even that time might now be on their side. This is particularly true of Hamas, which can look to the political success of Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere as evidence that it can afford to take a long view. I am far from convinced that time is on the Palestinians side, given both continued Israeli settlement activity (especially around Jerusalem) as well as trends in Israeli domestic politics. Moreover, I think the view that history favours Palestinian liberation tends to work against a frank and realistic assessment of Palestinian strategic options, especially within Hamas itself (which has partly made a transition to acceptance of a two-state solution, but in a gradual and limited way).
  • There was discussion among the group over whether the two state model of resolving the conflict is itself dead, and whether alternative models might become more attractive. I agree that a two state solution gets harder by the day, although I’m not prepared to pronounce it dead quite yet. I think a one state model is illusory and unobtainable within this century, given Israel’s core, fundamental raison d’etre of being a Jewish state.  More likely, I fear, is a one-and-a-half state solution, in other words an evolving version of what we have now: an Israel state, and a Palestinian Bantustan.
  • Concern was also raised by several Israeli and Palestinian participants that trends in the region (the electoral success of Islamist parties, the growing influence of the religious vote in Israel) might gradually transform the conflict into a religious one that would be less amenable to resolution.
  • There was a broad consensus among participants that US policy has been something of a disaster under Obama. Too much emphasis had been placed on negotiations at the expense of clarifying core principles. Given the current election season in the US, no one expected that Washington would do much more in the next year. Moreover, if Obama were to be reelected, there was little optimism that his Middle East policy would much different in a second term. While it is hard to predict what Romney might do in the White House (on any issue), the general view was that he would tilt even more to the Israeli right waing. A Gingrich White House, with John Bolton as Secretary of State? That, of course, would be an unmitigated disaster for the peace process.
  • I strongly argued that European policy has been a coequal disaster with US policy. The EU had failed to generate the sorts of pressures it is capable of on the settlements issue. It had also failed to grasp the opportunities presented by the Palestinian UN bid. The British (who have some strikingly clever diplomats) has rather sadly lined up behind the American position in many regards. The French had handled it somewhat better in a public relations sense, but in substantive terms had done little better. Given the ongoing Eurozone crisis, no one is expecting European performance will improve any time soon.

Despite the meeting being part of the Minster Lovell series, there was virtually no direct discussion of the implication of this for refugees (some of which had been discussed at the last meeting. However, if my pessimistic view is accurate, it certainly suggests that there will be absolutely no progress to resolving the refugee issue any time soon.

  1. Nadim Shehadi says:

    Thanks Rex, brilliant summary and gives an opportunity to add a couple of points while it is all still fresh, I hope others will too:

    It was also argued that there is an opportunity for a game change arising in the fact that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to have lost some of its glow while the region is busy with other things. The Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, the Shalit swap, improvements in border crossings, the UN statehood bid by the PLO are all a result of the fact that they were less too hot to handle. They were also allowed to happen because they were no longer subject to regional players blocking each other. In a nutshell the opportunity presents itself because many of the regional and international linkages that complicate the conflict are now less ‘live’.

    This is related to the question of time, which is also subject to two opposing interpretations:

    The opinion that prevailed in the meeting suggested that both Israelis and Palestinians have an interest in letting time pass. The other view is that there is a window for a breakthrough and that this will not last too long, The fact that conflict is not such a hot potato regionally and internationally may change very quickly. There was some discussion about this with one opinion that the countries in transition will have enough problems of their own for the next ten years and may leave the conflict alone. The other is that the conflict is always attractive as a legitimising instrument.

    The refugee issue was not central to the meeting; it came up while discussing the May 15 and June 5 border incidents in Lebanon and Syria and their significance. What started off in Lebanon with a march to commemorate the Nakba organised by youth and civil society activists, both Lebanese and Palestinian, ended up with a fiasco at Maroun el Ras where ten demonstrators were killed by the Israelis and several injured. The same happened on the Syrian border. The interesting thing is that in Lebanon some of the activists felt manipulated and driven to provoke the incidents as a diversion from what is happening in Syria. Similar reactions in the Yarmouk camp during the funeral of those that were killed in the Jaulan demonstration led to shootouts in the Yarmouk camp. These two incidents plus a discussion of the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo also raised the question of whether the conflict can still be exploited as a diversion tactic by regimes as it was in the past.

    Another aspect of the refugee issue was also raised in the Lebanese context. It is important to watch the Lebanon scene because this is where Palestinian political opinions interact the most and where they are also expressed. All strands and factions are present there and throughout the Fatah-Hamas dispute relations in Lebanon remained peaceful. This was partly because of a tacit agreement to spare the refugee camps any further confrontation, but also in line with the way business is conducted in Lebanon.

    Lastly the PLO statehood bid is relevant to refugees in a different way: if it goes through then the mechanism for reverting to final status issues is disrupted or at least not clear. This may give the impression that the issue of refugees is left to fall by the way side. I expected this to generate a lot of opposition to the bid but it did not except in a couple of cases where genuine questions were raised. Overall the bid was received positively on the Palestinian side. As you rightly point out, this was also related to the Arab Spring.

    The opening remarks by one of our colleagues remain true: it is too early to say where things are heading because they are still in flux. But this year was so hectic that we needed to take a step back and go over the developments and their significance.

  2. Nadim Shehadi says:

    One last thing is that our discussion of developments in Israel confirms other impressions that I got from a meeting in Madrid recently. The protests in Israel appear as though they are mainly related to socio-economic issues and are unrelated to the conflict. There is a shift to the right and uncertainly about the ultimate results of the Arab Spring which intensifies Israeli fears and favours the current government’s position under which the consensus is that there will not be any progress. The other side of that coin is that there is a movement building momentum and is questioning the whole system in Israel and that it will inevitably adress the conflict with the Palestinians and the occupation etc… Some say that these issues are deliberately avoided because they are divisive and the objective now is to concentrate on building that momentum.

  3. Philip Wilkinson says:

    I’m on the CH international security team. I did not attend said conference. I have been working in the West Bank since last April. I am the Co-director of Studies of the Palestinian senior leaders course. The above analysis will be helpful context in student (Col to BG level) discussions – thank you.
    I would like to add an additional point regarding raised Palestinian expectations relating to the UN bid. The failure to create any political momentum towards peace by the US/Quartet and the continued IDF arrests and general anger created by the occupation and continued settlement building is creating an inflamatory mix. I realise it is the elephant in the room that we try to avoid discussing but if there is no progress in the peace process and the occupation continues in support of settlement and out-post building we must consider the possibility of a third intafada. A depressing thought I know but Palestinian patience is not infinite.

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