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Arab risings and the Israel-Palestine conflict: from national to human rights

An Independent Jewish Voices panel discussion suggests that the most important lesson of the Arab Spring may be the introduction of public will and opinion into the debate, and that this applies as much to inter-state diplomacy as domestic governance.
Lawrence Joffe
23 July 2011

Has the Arab Spring passed Palestinians by, or did the intifadas inspire current events? If regional democracy was Israel’s fervent desire, as often stated, why does Jerusalem only see dangers in the current climate? How does Palestine’s bid for independence in September fit the narrative of revolt against a discredited old order? And if the long-running Palestine/ Israel dispute has seemingly fallen down the agenda of priorities on the streets of Cairo, Sanaa, Damascus, Tunis and Tripoli, could that spell good news or bad for ordinary people in Tel Aviv and Ramallah? 

These and many more intriguing questions informed a lively discussion held under the auspices of Independent Jewish Voices, and hosted by the Psychosocial Studies Department at Birkbeck College, London University. The event took place on 14 July and the panel included Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations, Oxford University, Dr Khaled Hroub, Director of the Arab Media Project at Cambridge, and Ian Black, Middle East editor of The Guardian. Jacqueline Rose, Professor of English at Queen Mary College, chaired. 

In his opening contribution Avi Shlaim hailed the last six months as “a major watershed”. People had broken the barrier of fear and the old status quo has been shattered, never to return – a position the other speakers largely agreed with, though with caveats.

Shlaim particularly focused on the overturning of three false assumptions about the Middle East: that change can only come from outside, that Arab political culture is inherently authoritarian, and that “upheaval always leads to an Islamic theocracy that is worse than the dictators”.

A similar “process from below”, he suggested, has targeted both Fatah’s and Hamas’s shortcomings and led to their recent accord, significantly brokered by the new Egyptian government. Hamas is now linked to a de facto acceptance of Israel, even if it cannot declare so outright, said Shlaim.

Yet while Palestinians welcomed a democratic impetus towards unity, they were greatly disillusioned with Israel and the USA. The Palestine Papers as revealed by Wikileaks and the Guardian was “worse than a charade”. It merely increased disenchantment with a peace process (“all process, no peace”) that began 20 years ago in Madrid, yet which has hardly curbed Israel’s settlement drive.

America, charged the professor, “has given itself a monopoly of diplomacy and has proven to be a dishonest broker”. It had squandered every chance to correct the “natural asymmetry of power” between Israelis and Palestinians. While conceding that the Arab Spring is not primarily about Israel and more about domestic issues, Shlaim lamented Israel’s decision to “ignore the opportunities” it presents, and instead to focus only on perceived threats and dangers. 

“Israel sees itself as outsiders in the region”, he said. Little has changed since Vladimir Jabotinsky in the 1930s, said the professor, who wrote about the Revisionist Zionist leader in his respected book The Iron Wall. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Shlaim, has gone a step further and added a tincture of hypocrisy to the equation. Having long argued that peace is only possible between democracies, and that Israel is ‘the sole democracy in the Middle East’, he now rejects moves towards freer expression in both the region at large and the Palestine Authority in particular. Defence Minister Ehud Barak, moreover, has habitually only dealt “with predictable dictators”.

“Israel is especially scared about Egypt”, said Shlaim. Chastising Israel for not taking seriously the 2002 Arab League peace plan, which famously offered Israel the elixir of ‘normalisation’, he said that Cairo would honour their peace treaty, as President Mubarak did after Sadat’s assassination in 1981. “Yet the mood could change and a cold peace might become totally frozen” if Israel persists with its blockade of Gaza, predicted Shlaim. 

In conclusion Shlaim said that the tectonic plates were shifting, and that an Israel that is scared to lose its privileged position could, paradoxically, “end up on the wrong side of history”. 

Khaled Hroub followed with a wide overview of recent exciting yet often confusing events. What lessons can be drawn, he asked, and what well-worn paradigms should be discarded if we want to understand matters properly? 

Turning to the false notions first, he said it was time to abandon the idea of ‘stability’ which ordered democracy to take a backseat to development. Another paradigm under fire was the view often touted by self-described revolutionary Arab regimes, that the number one interest was to fight Israel and not waste time thinking about their own societies, he said. “But there was defeat after defeat; now people have felt they should mount their own revolutions.” 

A third unhelpful diagnosis that needs jettisoning was the simplistic view that blamed first Communism and then Islamism as the all-encompassing threat, and thus papered over existing real problems. Lastly, said Hroub, analysts were only now realising that ‘stability’ grounded in authoritarian rule will end eventually. “We have seen people ready to die for social justice, so we must rather base stability on freedom and dignity” – a lesson, he added, that applied as much to Israel as to Arab states.

New voices have emerged from civil society “and a silent majority has revealed itself in the shape of the youth”. With hindsight these forces were simmering for the past 20 years. Yet observers looked solely at existing power centres and neglected the effect of draconian laws and corruption on citizens. 

Admitting mounting frustration with existing parties, whether the jaded official opposition in Egypt, Hamas and Fatah in Palestine or Likud and Labour in Israel, Hroub mooted that the Palestinian 15 March movement may be a “third way option”, but it was still in limbo and seeking a coherent strategy. 

Another crucial lesson was that peaceful force can alter western policies. Having backed dictators to maintain influence, the US administration has started changing, too, for their own interests. Uncritical support of dictators was risky, suggested Hroub, because tomorrow they could be gone. 

Professor Hroub next addressed the paradox of mass media. Broadcasters, including Al Jazeera, raised hopes of change on the ground. Yet after two decades exposure to news did not improve things. The implied message, he said, was “The media may be good at revealing anger but rulers still do what they like”. Or as Jacqueline Rose later paraphrased it, perhaps it bespoke a deliberate strategy of “depoliticising political dissent”?

The most important lesson, however, was “the introduction of public will and opinion into the debate.” This applied as much to inter-state diplomacy as domestic governance. Formerly, Israel made peace with Egypt by negotiating with one man, Sadat. The Knesset approved the treaty but domestic opinion in Egypt was hardly consulted, leading to an unbalanced process. Now the equation has been transformed; and Hroub urged that Arab people themselves should be called on to approve normalisation with Israel. Only by linking peace to democracy can either hold.

Palestinians, he added, should heed the lessons of the Arab Spring. “Non-violence is a more effective option; look at the Titanics that have been sunk!” he said. And, echoing Shlaim, he concluded by saying that Israel would lose out if it did not realise what was occurring around its borders.

Lastly came Ian Black, who confessed that as a journalist “sometimes one is breathless with excitement and it is hard not to be inspired.” He cautioned listeners that “the Arab Spring is first and foremost about Arabs, and it is still not finished. There is the natural empathy in the Arab world with the fate of Gaza. Yet people don’t wake up every morning from Benghazi and Baghdad worrying only about the Palestinians…” 

The paths uprisings have taken very much reflect the variety of the region: unpleasant times in a Libya woefully underdeveloped despite its oil resources; Yemen, the poorest state in the Arab world, blighted by illiteracy; and a more complicated picture in Syria, where “whatever happens will reverberate much more with other Arab countries”. Conservative states like Bahrain and Qatar probably fear Iran more than Israel, whereas Egypt and Jordan naturally worry more about the Palestine issue because of its proximity.

What unites all cases, though, is that “people are losing their fear.” And the related issue of “empowerment – the idea that people can change things” does have an impact in Palestine. “If ordinary Arabs can achieve change, why can’t we, say many Palestinians, especially after waiting for so long.” Yet how different, he asked, are prospects from 1988 when Palestinians first declared independence through the Algiers Declaration?

The publication of the Palestine Papers showed that the talks were heavily weighted to the Israeli side; Palestinians concluded that this signalled something wrong with their own negotiators, said Black. Was the timing of these revelations so soon before the Arab uprisings merely coincidental? 

Turning to the international plane, Black felt that President Obama’s rhetoric had not matched reality and that US foreign policy was falling back into familiar patterns. Washington had yet to explain why it is intervening in Libya but not in Syria – nor in Bahrain, were the US fleet is based. The biggest challenge would be if something happened in Saudi Arabia. So there were “double standards at work”. 

The proliferation of Israeli settlements seemed to preclude any hope of a two-state solution. Yet Israel needn’t be a wholly reactionary force, Black suggested; even the supposition that it is merely a colonial entity needs unpicking. Certainly there remains enormous Arab hostility. But if Israel were to embrace the current opportunities, revisit the 2002 Arab deal, and above all settle with Palestinians, true security might still be obtainable, he concluded. 

Before opening the discussion to the floor Jacqueline Rose thanked the speakers for a fascinating exchange of ideas. She noted how the excitement of change accompanied a darker side to the Arab Spring, and lamented Israel’s “capacity for stasis”, plus its power when backed by the USA. Yet at the same time she wondered, as the speakers had suggested, whether recent events have not opened a door to a new form of non-violent Palestinian resistance.

From the floor 

Many audience questions wrestled with how to characterise the Arab uprisings, their origins, their similarity with past historic upheavals, and their implications for Palestine and Israel. For instance, was the Egyptian rebellion socialist in origin? Were Tunisians motivated by anti-imperialist notions? And what might happen when the PLO seeks independence at the United Nations?

In reply Ian Black said that sympathy for Palestinians was running high and that they would probably win a “global referendum” at the General Assembly. While he doubted they would succeed at the Security Council, “a dramatic gesture like this, despite all the problems associated with it, could be a galvanising one.”

Hroub, though, expressed some caution. He noted that even senior PLO officials had “got cold feet”, reflecting a fear of what would happen the day after a declaration. Might Israel simply annex the West Bank? If so, “There will be uproar at first, then it will die down, and the new status quo could be even harsher than what exists now.” Palestinians wished to take the initiative and not be corralled down a single path. Recalling the Oslo process, which many now regard as flawed, Hroub was reminded of the metaphor of someone climbing up the stairs, just as someone else removes the steps beneath him.

Shlaim said that Israel looked anachronistic in a region suddenly surging with a new cosmopolitan atmosphere. “Questions have shifted from national rights to human rights”, he noted. Meanwhile Israel was imposing “ridiculous and impossible conditions”, such as refusing to talk until Arabs recognised it as a Jewish state. “The true motive must be that Israelis don’t want a peace settlement”, he concluded sadly. Nor could there be security if you don’t say where your border is. By spurning democracy Israel was undermining its own future, regardless of its treatment of Palestinians. “A people that opposes freedom for others cannot be free itself”, he said. 

Further questioners quizzed the experts on possible ways out of this deadlock. If America was too biased, asked Michael Elman, could the Quartet, Europe or even the American Jewish pro-peace pro-Israel J-Street movement fill the gap? What happened to the 40 prominent Israelis who publicly protested Netanyahu’s diplomatic obduracy, asked Palestinian activist, Ahlam Akram? Surely Jews in Europe should encourage them, lest “Israel totally isolates itself and cuts off all chances for peace”? Lobbyist Arthur Goodman reported that US officials seemed keen for Israelis to hear such voices. 

Avi Shlaim agreed that US public opinion offered some hope. As younger American Jews grow increasingly fed up with Israeli actions, groups like J-Street might represent their views more accurately than the admittedly powerful “Israel lobby”. The charge that Jewish critics of Israel were “self-haters” was losing traction. Conversely the 40 Israelis’ initiative seemed to have suffered the same fate as the 2002 Arab League plan, he said, through deliberate state neglect. 

Other speakers politely yet firmly advised audience members not to get carried away with preconceptions, or give in to wishful thinking. Ian Black reminded all that America was still unrivalled as an international arbiter, notwithstanding Obama’s oscillations. And the freshly minted anti-boycott law in Israel had spawned discomfit, if not outright disgust, across the American Jewish political spectrum. Perhaps this anger, he seemed to imply, might jolt Israel out of its current path.

Meanwhile Khaled Hroub insisted that change in Egypt was won on the ground by “real forces that have been accumulating for years”, despite all the talk of virtual networking and a Facebook Revolution. True, labour demands fuelled the protest, but analogies with Bolshevik vanguardism were misplaced; middle class opposition proved pivotal. The key question, he implied, was why this revolt succeeded, whereas previous attempts by groups like Kifaya failed. 

As to a questioner who regretted the possible fate of those putative “supporters of Palestinians”, Muammar Ghaddafi and Bashar Assad, Hroub did not mince his words: “The fall of Syria or Libya is actually in favour of Palestinians. The dictators’ rhetoric about ‘fighting Israel’ was fake and there is no justice for Palestinians if these regimes survive.”

One Israeli questioner drew attention to seismic changes in Israeli society, with liberals leaving and settlers growing in power. “ Politics goes from bottom up”, he said. “Foreign Minister Lieberman’s view is not exceptional; many people support it. There is widespread denial of the occupation.” How, then, might such attitudes might change?

Shlaim agreed that there were worrying systemic signs, such as settler numbers growing to half a million and religious officers making up one-third of the IDF top brass. Black noted that the Russian influx had pushed Israeli political culture decidedly to the right. Yet Shlaim saw positive signs, too, in the reception given to Daniel Barenboim’s mixed Arab and Israeli orchestra and its message of co-operation, both in Israel and Palestine.

Another Egyptian audience member had spent time in Tahrir Square. She said they had not planned a revolution, which grew from the spark lit by fury at the 31 December church bombing. Thus it was indigenous, she said, and not inspired solely by Tunisia. Now she worried that the revolution was in peril.

In reply Ian Black reiterated that the revolution had not yet failed; yet the situation differed from place to place, with Gulf monarchies appearing comparatively stable after an initial buffeting. Addressing the imperialist argument, he said the protest mood was “fundamentally about internal matters; though it also supports national dignity, hence no more kowtowing to foreign powers.”

One speaker agreed that impressions differ depending where you are looking from. Muslim Brothers contend that their young people “protected the revolution” when Mubarak released thugs onto Tahrir Square, for instance. Similarly, numbers can be misleading. In proportionate terms the 30 killed in a small state like Bahrain was at least as shocking as the 1,500 who have died in Syria.

So this was a mixed picture, with joy at the success of “people power” tempered by gloom at the still-unresolved Palestinian question, and alarm at the ongoing bloodshed in Libya and Syria. Yet at least there was no going back to the discredited verities of the past; and the future was pregnant with possibilities that each speaker illustrated by drawing on their collective century-plus of accumulated experience and insight.

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