No Spring in Palestine

No Spring in Palestine

Just when you thought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in the deep freezer, things are getting hot again. Hamas and Israel are back at each others’ throats; and for the first time in four years, there’s been a terror attack in Jerusalem, killing one Israeli. The bombing capped a week of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, which resulted in a number of civilian deaths in Gaza. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Israelis and Palestinians watching the historic changes in the Arab World just can’t stand not to be the center of attention.

But I do know better. And this time around, precisely because of those transformative changes, it’s going to take something truly big — either nasty or spectacular — to put the Palestinian issue back on center stage. Because right now, despite the loss of life on both sides, it’s still old hat. And here’s why:

If the onset of the Arab spring (Egypt, Tunisia) and Arab winter (Bahrain, Libya, Yemen) suggest anything, it is that priorities have shifted away from external reference points — Israel and the United States — to the more authentic forces of internal processes of political change. I say this fully aware of the Libyan exception, where the United States and the international community is very much in the picture.

Something truly profound is playing out in Arab capitals and countrysides: a process of ownership, the regaining of control over the Arab story (and future) by Arabs themselves. And this process of self-determination will continue to play out for years to come, affecting those Arab polities which to date have largely escaped significant change. Colonialists and Zionists are unlikely to figure as prominently in the Arab story — either as an excuse or justification.

The debate over the centrality of the Palestinian issue to regional stability and to U.S. interests has been argued in hot and heavy fashion for years. Proponents of centrality have argued that there’s no issue more resonant or more emotional in Arab politics; none more threatening to the viability of Israel or morally unfair to Palestinians; and certainly none more likely to radicalize Arabs and Muslims around the world.

Others have argued the opposite: that the sources of instability are deeper and broader, including turmoil within Islam, the Iranian challenge, a democracy deficit, and authoritarian regimes and extractive leaders who have bilked their public for years and kept them bottled up in a kind of Nasser time warp. Instead, they argue, the Palestinian issue has been used to distract and divert attention from meaningful reforms — a cruel deceit to keep autocrats in power.

The fact is that there is truth to both narratives; but, both have now been overtaken by another reality — an Arab spring and winter that have captured the attention and imagination of the peoples of this region and the world. These profound changes have created a new set of priorities and agenda that has set the Palestinian issue in a new light, reducing to a much tinier scale the grim, rather hopeless shepherd’s war we call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — whether it’s waged with rockets or knives. The empty promises of the peace process have done the rest.

To put this in perspective, look at the three-week-long Israeli-Hamas war in 2008-2009. It was short, cruel, and brutal; and it changed absolutely nothing. By contrast, the Arab spring/winter has been profound and transformative; it has changed much, with much more yet to come. Arabs and Muslims will certainly continue to be compelled by the power of the Palestinian issue, but the days when manipulative leaders can use Palestine as a rallying cry to mask their own abusive behavior may be numbered. For those countries that have peace treaties with Israel (Egypt, Jordan) Arab publics will finally have to own those relationships — rather than leave them in the autocrats hand — and decide for themselves whether or not they make sense.

Do Arab springs reflect the end or the erosion of the resonance of the Palestinian issue in Arab politics? Hardly. In emerging democratic and semi-democratic polities, new voices will abound and demand to be heard. Secularists and Islamists — not to mention extremists of all stripes — will keep Palestine alive as a rallying cry. But this time, it’s going to require something truly transformative to put it back on the front burner. Across the Arab world, the focus is now on elections, constitutions, and the revolutions yet to come. To paraphrase the British rock group The Who, the Arab public won’t get fooled again by some chimerical quest to redeem Palestine.

The same old, same old isn’t good enough anymore. Conventional diplomacy or conflict won’t be enough to re-energize the Arab world — or the Israelis and Palestinians, for that matter.

You’d need a confrontation so volatile that it forces Israelis and Palestinians to reassess, or a peacemaking initiative so grand that it shakes up calculations in a dramatic way. Neither is likely. The other potential? A Palestinian spring that harnesses people power as effectively and as peacefully as those that have occurred in the Arab world. Always an option, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Instead, I’d put my money on an Arab spring, as messy as it is, which is proving to be one of the most extraordinary political developments of this century — not on a tired, stalemated conflict that lacks visionary leadership, smart political tacticians, and new generational spirit. That’s an old movie, a rerun actually; and nobody — not even the Arabs — are watching.