July 19, 2011 by Antony Lerman
Chaired by Professor Jacqueline Rose (Queen Mary, University of London), the IJV panel event discussing the impact of the Arab Spring on developments in Israel-Palestine, which was held at Birkbeck, University of London on 14 July, provided a fascinating, incredibly well-informed, though rather depressing picture. A full hall listened intently to the three expert presentations.
Professor Avi Shlaim (Oxford University) called the uprisings a ‘major watershed in the modern history of the Middle East’ and said ‘the stagnant status quo had been irreversibly shattered’. Three assumptions had been overturned: that change can only come from outside; the Arab world is conducive to authoritarianism and alien to democracy; revolutionary change will lead to Islamist theocracy.
The Arab Spring has had an empowering effect on Palestinians. Hamas and Fatah have lost their legitimacy, although the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation accord is highly significant. Among other things, it showed that there is a Palestinian consensus on the 2-state solution, since Hamas has indirectly recognized Israel, Professor Shlaim argued.
The Palestinians are deeply disillusioned with the US and Israel, and the Palestinian Papers discredited Fatah. There’s profound disenchantment with the so-called peace process – ‘all process, no peace’ – because it has given Israel cover for its colonising agenda on the West Bank.
The US cannot act as an honest broker and the imbalance in power between Israel and the Palestinians means that they must be pushed into peace by some outside agency. The projected declaration of a Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly in September, which the GA will support, may help in this regard.
Israel is clearly a player in the Arab Spring but its response has always been negative. Israelis have never seen themselves as part of the region. Bibi said Israel can only make peace with democracies, but now that the Arabs are moving in that direction, he has changed his tune.
‘Israel is succumbing to imperial paranoia’, Professor Shlaim said. ‘Unless there is a shift in Israeli thinking, Israel will end up on the wrong side of history.’
Dr Khaled Hroub (Director, Cambridge Arab Media Project) concurred with Professor Shlaim’s analysis. He added that the stability paradigms by which events in the region had always been judged had rapidly collapsed. Stability must be based on freedom, dignity and social justice, not on the idea that the end result of revolutionary change is always defeat or that Islamism is such a threat, dictatorship is the only answer. There is a new realism in the idea that Israel’s might is unsustainable because it’s unjust.
The revolutions have brought into play new forces: the youth and the silent majority. The traditional analysis of the Israel-Palestine situation, based on examining the actions of organized actors, no longer works.
The Palestinians are trying to find an alternative strategy, but so far this hasn’t succeeded because no internal plan has emerged that secures Palestinian consensus. Nevertheless, there is a recognition that Western policies of support for Israel can be changed by the people themselves.
On the role of the media, Dr Hroub said that when Al Jazeera was launched there were hopes that this would change things, but nothing concrete happened. Instead, it has acted as a safety valve – a means for people to let off steam, but leaving power structures intact. Nevertheless, the expression of global sentiment in favour of the revolutions in Tunis and Egypt was a result of the media coverage.
Non-violence proved to be more effective than violence. And the Palestinians are now taking this option very seriously, not just theoretically but practically.
Dr Hroub concluded by pointing out that the force and influence of Arab public opinion had been introduced into the Arab-Israeli conflict for the first time. Any future Arab ruler or regime now has to take Arab public opinion into account. This will expose the whole issue of peace and democracy to wider popular scrutiny. ‘Peace plans will have to go to the people.’
Ian Black (Middle East Editor, the Guardian) explained that the Arab Spring is about Arabs first and foremost, but intimately connected to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
While it’s truly a phenomenon affecting the entire Arab region, certain countries – Libya and Yemen for example – are not so significant for the Arab Spring as a whole (which is not at all to minimise the pain and sacrifice of the people in those countries seeking freedom and democracy). What happens in Syria, however, could be decisive. It’s just important to remember that what’s happening is different in different places. Among the public there is great sympathy for and broad emotional identity with the uprisings, but not total preoccupation.
Clearly, what now happens in Jordan and Egypt has major implications for the Israel-Palestine situation. However, conservative Arab regimes are more worried about what’s happening in Iran than in Israel. This can also be seen in the fact that the Bahraini ambassador to Washington is a Jewish woman.
Ian Black said that the mood among many Palestinians reflects the sentiment that ‘If ordinary Arabs can change things, why shouldn’t Palestinians also be able to change things?’ And the specifics of the Israel-Palestine situation matter a lot – things are much worse now than ever before.
It has to be acknowledged that there is hostility to Israel across the region and that this validates the embattled Israeli mindset. ‘But’, Ian Black concluded, ‘the threat to Israel is only there because Israel hasn’t reconciled itself with the Palestinians.’
A searching question and answer session then followed. Especially moving was the contribution from an Egyptian woman who had participated in the revolution and who was anxious that the chronology of events and the key forces be clearly understood. Others also focused on the nature of the uprisings and the direction they may now take, given that events in Egypt seemed to be taking a turn for the worse.
There was also interest in the implications of the declaration of Palestinian statehood expected at the UN General Assembly in September. Dr Hroub highlighted some of the possible negative aspects, arguing that the result could be more repression on the part of Israel, which may respond by annexing much of the West Bank. And there would be no force that could challenge such actions on the ground.
Responding to another question, Professor Shlaim said that Israel was becoming an anachronistic country in the region. The world has moved on and now gives priority to human rights, international law and so on. By its actions ‘Israel is undermining its own future’, he said.
Also answering a question about the planned UN GA Palestinian state declaration, Ian Black, acknowledging that Israel’s response to the Arab Spring had shown just how depressing and intractable the situation was, suggested that ‘A dramatic gesture, like the declaration of a Palestinian state, despite all the problems associated with it, could be a galvanising one.’
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