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FP: The Middle East Crisis That Just Won't Go Away

May 20, 2011

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In this piece for Foreign Policy, Salman Shaikh, Director of the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, writes that the Arab Spring has only further complicated the hopes for Palestinian and Israeli peace because it has renewed the Palestinians hopes for greater freedoms.

It is often said by people in the Middle East, especially Israelis and Palestinians, that "in the end, we always come back to the Arab-Israeli conflict." That is exactly what happened on Thursday, May 19, when U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a major policy speech at the State Department, introducing new principles for negotiations based on 1967 borders, and this past weekend, when at least 10 unarmed protesters were killed by Israeli fire on a day the Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "Catastrophe." The Arab-Israeli conflict is once again front and center.

But if the broad brush strokes of this story are by now painfully familiar, the context and the particulars of this week may point to a different kind of flare-up while the United States seeks to restart peace talks. There is, of course, the Arab Spring: The Palestinians see the new narrative of the Arab revolts for greater freedoms, justice, and equality joining their own decades-old search for the same, and for a state of their own. For Israelis, Sunday, May 15, was the day when the Arab awakening washed up on their own still provisional borders, reminding them yet again of how vulnerable they are and how isolated they have become.

Coordinated protests on Israel's 1949 armistice lines with Syria and Lebanon -- as well as in the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, and Jordan -- have alarmed many Israelis and raised concerns that Israel lacks the practical means to counter mass demonstrations in the future. In fact, only a heavy security presence near the Egyptian and Jordanian borders with Israel prevented protesters from besieging these areas as well. Israelis are realizing the tangible effects of a rapidly changing region in which old certainties are dying and fears of a return to conflict are revived.

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