What are the implications of Middle East-North Africa unrest for the future of the Israel-Palestine peace process?

Zulaikha Abdullah
Monday, February 28, 2011

In an interview for the BBC during an emergency tour of the Middle East earlier this month, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "Amid the opportunity for countries like Tunisia and Egypt, there is a legitimate fear that the Middle East peace process will lose further momentum and be put to one side, and will be a casualty of uncertainty in the region." Reiterating these perceptions in Tunis, he emphasised that the new status quo would "complicate the process still further" and stressed that it was time to "inject greater urgency into the Middle East peace process", particularly on the part of Israel and the US.

However, the sea change in attitudes, expectation and demands on the Arab street in recent weeks resonates strongly in the occupied Palestinian territories, particularly in the light of revelations made last month in the leaked Palestine Papers and the subsequent resignation of lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat.

A prevalent view is that "peace negotiations" have for a long time been nothing more than an elaborate and interminable process of gradually subjugating and dispossessing the Palestinian people under pretexts of Israeli security considerations. Indeed, calls to return urgently to the negotiating table have been interpreted as "pre-emptive security measures to ensure the tremors of political revolt do not destabilize the status quo in the occupied territories" and are an attempt to circumvent the real issues of justice, democracy, dignity, and human rights.

Tides of change

Since the ousting of Tunisia's Ben Ali followed by Egypt's Mubarak and now the bloody revolt in Libya against the forty-plus years of Gaddafi's dictatorship, the impetus for change and legitimate, representative and democratic governments continues to intensify; the Arab revolutionary spirit shows no signs of abating. Popular anger is directed against what are perceived to be Western-backed, corrupt and autocratic regimes which disregard the aspirations of their people, placing the interests of foreign states and companies above national interest and dignity.

The hallmark social, political and economic conditions of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and beyond, which made them ripe for revolution, are rife in the occupied Palestinian Territories. The clearest parallels can be drawn with Egypt: widespread poverty and a disenfranchised youth; ever increasing levels of repression and brutality; exploitation of fears of Islamic extremism and terrorism; and foreign aid in return for strategic support for Israel, including far-reaching security co-ordination. That's Israel's security, not the Palestinians'.

The Ramallah government's response to the upheaval, including the revelations made in the Palestine Papers has been to call for long overdue elections by September in a desperate attempt to address its precarious position domestically and demonstrate commitment to democracy and reform. It has also been necessary to attempt to offset their characterisation by the Papers as pusillanimous, humiliated and weak by projecting a tougher negotiating stance; this was seen in the PA's recent rejection of a US deal in exchange for withdrawing the application for a UN Security Council Resolution condemning settlements. The PA has also shown more openness toward national reconciliation with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's call for the creation of a unity government with Hamas.

What could the fall of the Mubarak regime mean for Palestinians?

According to analysts, Israel's peace with Egypt under Mubarak was its second greatest strategic asset after the United States. This was reflected clearly in Israel's frantic international efforts to shore up support for the despotic leader as well as the close military ties it maintained with the regime as it fell, including airlifting anti-riot equipment to Cairo. Egypt was crucial to Israel's security, being the backbone of US-Israeli military and intelligence coordination in the region. It claimed to have been responsible for a crack down on terror directed against Israel from within its territory; it imposed the blockade of the Gaza Strip; Egypt led efforts to defeat Hamas while brokering national reconciliation talks and co-ordinated Israel's activities with the Palestinian Security Forces, among other things. Moreover, the Mubarak regime played a major role in brokering and pushing forward the peace talks and was a major supporter of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, having enabled his rise to power. As such, Mubarak's ousting from power will be of key significance to the conflict and the future of the peace process in a number of ways;

Elections

In the current climate, elections will be risky for the Palestinian Authority. There have been no elections in the territories since 2006 when the Bush administration pushed for them, resulting in electoral defeat for the PA. President Mahmoud Abbas's term of office expired two years ago, elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC] have been suspended and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is unelected. Although Fayyad is respected in the West for his state building efforts, he is viewed by many as a Western pawn keen to select a new cabinet of like-minded "technocrats". Corruption and institutional decay is rife in the PA and an increase in the use of repressive tactics means that opposition to the authority has grown, giving it limited credibility as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

While in principle election should help to engender national reconciliation, Hamas has branded them illegitimate and an attempt to divert attention away from the scandal of the Palestine Papers, underscoring the sense of stunned betrayal and outrage felt by many Palestinians. The Islamic Resistance Movement also questions how elections can possibly be free and fair as long as the Israeli occupation is in place and the PA continues to arrest political opponents in the West Bank. And with direct negotiations having stalled since September last year only to be exposed as a virtual farce, the PA has very little to show for itself. Moreover, Hamas, which took full control over the Gaza Strip 18 months after winning the 2006 elections, has vowed not to participate in the proposed elections or recognise their outcome. Coupled with the loss of support from the Mubarak regime, the PA has been weakened significantly; without fundamental reform, the national rift will persist, weakening further its position. However, with the elections scheduled for September and coinciding with proposed dates for a final status agreement, it is unclear how far these reforms will go.

Although the US has threatened to cut funding to the PA if there is a change in leadership, it is paramount that the organisation receives an infusion of new young blood. It needs a leadership willing and capable of reconciliation as well as of safeguarding the rights and interests of the Palestinian people if the PA is to regain credibility.

National reconciliation

Since the split between Fatah and Hamas in 2007, various external actors have sought to perpetuate the national rift and maintain two distinct and separate Palestinian political entities along with a physical division of the people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite the widely acknowledged failure of this policy to isolate Hamas, Palestinian division has been maintained with a view to securing specific interests and a particular vision for the region. With the current upheaval, and the fact that Western allies are fast losing influence, it appears that this tactic is being re-evaluated.

Mediation of reconciliation talks had until now been monopolised by Egypt under the leadership of its former Minister of Intelligence, Omar Suleiman. Ideological connections between Hamas and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, considered the most serious domestic political threat to the Egyptian status quo, led to clearly perceptible bias as it was feared that Hamas's electoral victory would have a subversive impact inside Egypt. This caused talks to flounder and objections to the 2009 reconciliation paper proposed by Egypt centred on Hamas demands for amendments related to elections and the fact that proposals allowed for Fatah to maintain control over the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF). Additionally, Hamas has said that it wants an agreement that restores Palestinian dignity and rules out US and Quartet preconditions.

With the removal of Egyptian mediation from the equation and following PA reform, a concerted effort can now be mounted to secure an agreement; reconciliation remains at the top of the public agenda.

Security reform

One of the strongest criticisms of the PA has been its use of the US-trained PSF; according to the Palestine Papers there is evidence of collaboration between the PA, the US and Israeli security forces. Prior knowledge of the Gaza War, repression, torture and imprisonment of hundreds political opponents in the West Bank along with Egypt-enabled security coordination with Israel has meant that the PA and its PSF have essentially become an extension of the Israeli security forces. This has led to obvious tensions and opposition to reconciliation from Hamas in Gaza. Demands for reform and reconciliation from Hamas would require that a joint security committee be formed to create a partnership based on Palestinian national interests along with the release of political prisoners on both sides.

An end to the siege

Not only was the four year siege of the Gaza Strip enforced by the Mubarak regime, but Egypt also continued to construct a subterranean steel barrier along its border with Gaza; under the urging of the PA, Egypt focused on demolishing the smuggling tunnels which still function as a lifeline for the besieged inhabitants. For Egyptian protesters, a complete end to the siege on Gaza was a top priority of their demands. Although the Rafah crossing has been opened in both directions, only patients, students, those with residence permits in Egypt and holders of visit visas to other countries are allowed to leave Gaza.

National dignity

The Palestine Papers exposed the abject weakness of the Palestinian Authority in negotiations and its impotent desperation and humiliation in the face of unyielding Israeli indifference and US bias. The massive concessions over fundamental Palestinian rights that the PA was willing to make are evidence of this. US and EU funds flowing to the West Bank have created a dependency culture and perpetuated division; they have also been exploited to impose demands and exert pressure on a corrupt and weak PA to maintain the status quo while buying time for the Israelis. US threats to cut funding if the current PA leadership is changed were based ostensibly on the PA's pliability and negotiators' willingness to cross the so-called red lines without receiving anything in return while safeguarding external interests at the expense of Palestinians. With the removal of the Mubarak lynchpin and the impending prospect of reform, democratic elections and a representative leadership, Palestinians may look forward to regaining a measure of national dignity.

What are the implications for Israel?

The fall of Mubarak has been used by both supporters and critics of the peace process within Israel to justify their respective positions. Those in favour of peace argue that change in the region requires Israel to adapt rapidly to the new emerging order through genuine engagement in negotiations rather than the prevarication and indifference that has characterised its approach over the last decade. Just as Israel must now reassess the security, economic and diplomatic ties it once enjoyed with Egypt, it must also work toward forging diplomatic relations across the region, abandoning injurious policies and improving its image on the world stage. With the support and protection afforded by the Mubarak frontier unsure, the possibility of an end to security coordination with the PSF and the influence of the US diminishing, Israel will have to learn to live in peace with its neighbours rather than using its current bully tactics while depending on the US for protection.

Nevertheless, thus far, Israel's response has been posturing, reactionary and militaristic with calls from within the army to reoccupy the Philadelphia corridor along the border between Egypt and Gaza; two air strikes were launched against the latter last week. Israeli critics of the peace process assert that widespread unrest underscores arguments against relinquishing territory and signing-up to peace in a politically volatile environment. Arguments have also been made for the possibility of Israel attempting to pre-empt possible changes in the West Bank. Others point out that the climate of popular unrest founded in demands for social justice and democracy should drive home to Israel just how untenable its on-going occupation, illegal settlement expansion and reliance on repression in the Palestinian Territories are. As in Turkey, the current trend toward legitimate democratic government across the region will bring to power regimes that cannot but wholeheartedly oppose a Zionist settler state.

While one of Israel's traditional rallying cries for popular Western support has been its claim to being the only democracy in the region, now it will only be able to demand support as a morally legitimate state. This will have to mean an end to settlements, occupation and repression in the occupied territories; a commitment to democratic reform in neighbouring states; an end to apartheid-like practices within Israel and the establishment of viable Palestinian state.

How will the international community react to the changes?

In 2009, US President Barack Obama asserted that resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict would be at the centre of his foreign policy in recognition of its crucial role in fuelling anti-American sentiment in the region. On this score, he has failed diabolically. Since unrest began, the US has remained a few steps behind the rapid pace of change, maintaining support for its despotic allies right up until such support became completely untenable. Their recent decision to veto the UN Security Council Resolution condemning settlements, which was supported by Britain, France and Germany, reflects that the US is not only out of sync with Arab public opinion but also with European and international opinion.

US mismanagement of the peace process and its evident bias as reflected by the Palestine Papers, particularly with regard to illegal settlement construction which severely undermines the prospect of a two-state solution, has been the cause of intense frustration in Europe. Last November, the US pledged $3 billion in military aid to Israel along with a promise to veto any UN resolutions that questions its legitimacy in exchange for an extension of the partial moratorium on construction; an offer that was summarily rejected forcing the US to publicly rescind the demand and promise to abandon future talk of settlement freeze altogether.

The extraordinary and unprecedented situation on Capitol Hill that would allow one Republican senator to promise Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the new Republican majority would serve as "a check on the administration" in any disputes with Israel, coupled with the very real potential for the situation to spiral out of control, has no doubt prompted Europeans to step up their direct involvement. The notion that the US is the only power with the credibility and capability of exerting pressure on Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world as a whole, and of brokering a deal is now outmoded. Moreover, the EU is Israel's most important trade partner while it provides key funding to the PA in the West Bank.

US justification for its decision to veto the latest attempt to get a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israeli settlements rests on purported considerations for whether the action would "move the parties closer to negotiations and agreement or take them further apart"; the Obama administration concluded that it would have hardened the positions of one or both sides. The assertion that referring the issue to the UN undermines the central goal of direct negotiations completely neglects the reality of the domestic political situations in both the occupied territories and Israel and the gross imbalance of power between the two negotiating sides.

US and European goals also appear to be at odds. While the central US goal is direct negotiations themselves, according to William Hague, "[Britain's] goal remains an agreement on all final status issues and the welcoming of Palestine as a full member [of the UN] by September 2011". As unrealistic as that may be, it nevertheless highlights the developing divergence between the two approaches and Europe's willingness to assume a leading role and to use its leverage to achieve a semblance of balance. Yet, for any European initiative to gain real traction, a radical new approach must be formulated that takes into account the new realities focusing on the issues of justice, democracy, dignity, and human rights rather than attempting to rehash tired US - Israeli strategies for maintaining regional hegemony. Moreover, any European initiative will need to take stock of the fact that tactics to secure international or UN support for resolutions and unilateral actions have little impact on Israel or the reality of the occupation. Real change cannot occur without Israel's cooperation and the EU must be willing to use the leverage at their disposal to demand cooperation.

What are the prospects for a peace deal?

Benjamin Netanyahu has called on Mahmoud Abbas to resume direct negotiations, rejecting assertions that differences between the two sides are too great and re-emphasising the need for an agreement that would "sustain peace… ensure our security in the event that peace unravels..." However, during the previous round of direct negotiations last year, Netanyahu refused to address any issues beyond Israel's security before the partial moratorium on settlements expired and illegal construction resumed, scuppering the talks.

There is little trust on either side and many believe that a deal is impossible under the current Israeli government; Netanyahu is simply uninterested in peace and there is no impetus for him to move forward with negotiations. Indeed, according to the media, Netanyahu called German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, last week to express his "disappointment" at Germany's decision to vote for the UN resolution condemning settlements which was eventually vetoed by the US. Refreshingly, he was rebuked sternly by Merkel. "How dare you?" she asked. "You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven't made a single step to advance peace."

Genuine, legitimate negotiations cannot take place before Palestinian national reconciliation is achieved and the prospect of a unity government which includes Hamas diminishes the likelihood of the Palestinians and Israelis coming together. Nevertheless, pragmatic voices within Israel continue to call for the inclusion of Hamas, which itself has stated that it would be willing to enter into talks and a long-term ceasefire with Israel, as well as to abide by UN-demarcated borders for a state and to honour previous Fatah deals. However, the domestic reality of Israeli politics, exemplified by the ideologically driven powerful settler movement headed by the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, makes it an unlikely prospect for the time being. In addition, it seems unlikely that a coalition government including Hamas would be willing to act as an extension of Israeli security services or to offer the scope of concessions that have already been rejected by Israel out of hand.

Conclusion

The current unrest in the Middle East and, in particular, the Egyptian revolution will have far-reaching effect on the Israel-Palestine peace process. The mood in the region has changed and demands are clear and simple. The domino effect triggered by the Tunisian revolution has yet to come to rest. To ignore the opportunity for real change provided by the climate of peaceful revolution and to attempt to return to the "peace process" before reforms are carried out and Palestinian national unity is achieved would be dangerous and potentially catastrophic.