from The Water's Edge

Guest Post: Turmoil in the Middle East and Implications for Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

March 14, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

A boy watches as pro-democracy supporters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 18, 2011.
A boy watches as pro-democracy supporters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo on February 18, 2011. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/courtesy Reuters)

The political turmoil rocking the Middle East has prompted lots of commentary about trends and developments in individual countries, be it Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Libya, Algeria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, or somewhere else.  I asked my colleague, Robert Danin, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, to take a step back and give us a big picture look at where things stand in the Arab world—and what it means for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  He offers up ten smart observations.

1.  While seemingly obvious, it is important to recognize that the popular unrest raging from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Oman is an historic turning point in the Arab world. Don’t underestimate what has been unleashed.  It is an earthquake, along the magnitude of the 1948 war that led to the toppling of many Arab regimes or some of the other major historic turning points in the region. What we are seeing are popular reactions to local circumstances that are then inspiring similar such unrest elsewhere. Arabs are acting locally but thinking regionally.

2.  Arabs are protesting for different things in different places. In Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia, they wanted regime change. In Jordan and Bahrain (so far), they are calling for a change to the regime’s behavior.

3.  Even within the various countries where there is unrest, the protesters are not all calling for the same things. These are ad hoc coalitions of the angry. Some demonstrators want democracy, some want food, some want an end to corruption, and some aren’t quite sure what they are seeking.

4.  Yet what unites them is desire for change, a new sense of dignity, participation in public life, and resentment at the ossified status quo. This is a revolt against a longstanding sense of powerlessness and humilitation.

5.  These are Arabs revolting against Arabs. This is not a traditional Arab revolt against outsiders, be they Ottomans, British, Americans, Persians, or Zionists. This is new, and signifies an effort at Arab self-empowerment.

6.  What these revolts demonstrate is that there is no Arab exception to the universal desire for a better life and certain basic human aspirations. Some Arabs are saying that for the first time in their lives they are proud to be Arabs. They are showing the outside world that Arabs should not be seen as just a group of Islamic fundamentalists and/or terrorists, but as people who share goals that others around the world hold dear.

7.  This is just the beginning of a huge historical development, and we do not know where it will end. This will take years if not decades to sort out. There are counter-revolutionary forces at play that do not ensure that this will all end well. It is going to be hard for even new representative governments to meet the hopes and aspirations that have been stirred up. So when the new regimes still can’t deliver food, it could still get very ugly. Is this Russia 1917, Europe 1848, Iran 1979? No one is sure of the correct historical analogy.

8.  One thing that the revolutions demonstrate, however, is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not the single central fault line dividing the Middle East. The conflict has its intrinsic importance and significance to be sure, and resolving it remains very important. But solving the Arab-Israeli conflict will clearly not solve all of the region’s ills. This has policy implications, given how numerous U.S. administrations have defined peacemaking as their central Middle East objective.

9.  In the short term, the popular unrest and revolutions are going to push Israelis and Palestinians further apart from one another. Israelis are in hunker down mode waiting to see how it all plays out.  Peace with Egypt has been a central pillar in their national security doctrine. They are anxious to see if it will endure. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have just lost an elder brother, Hosni Mubarak, who had been their major patron in the pursuit of peace with Israel. The Palestinian inclination now is to consolidate power and try to reestablish domestic legitimacy. That is not going to come through the peace process. They see it coming through reconciliation attempts with Hamas, new elections, and a focus on domestic politics.

10.  Yet all is not lost in quest for Arab-Israeli peace. In the medium term, should more representative governments in the Arab world emerge, they are going to have to deliver a better life for their people. They cannot hide between broken and delegitimized ideologies. They are also are not going to have to live in fear of their own people as so many current dictators must. This fear has been paralyzing. This means that there will be real politics and greater opportunities to lead public opinion and not just react to it. Already, we may be seeing Arabs having to take action for the first time–witness unprecedented call by the GCC and the Arab League for a no fly zone in Libya. It is too soon to tell if this is a true indicator. But Arab leaders are not going to be able to just sit back and do nothing. And if a self-interested peace that could actually benefit their people is on the table, it MAY make regional conciliation more possible.  And Egyptians tell me that while the generation of the revolution do take a tougher line towards Israel, what they seek is a just peace and end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians, not an end to Israel. All this assumes that the unrest leads to more open and representative governments. We can’t assume that this will be the case. But we should also be open to new possibilities that develop in the new Arab order and seize upon them should they emerge.