Virtually overnight, the Arab Middle East has been irrevocably transformed. The implications for America’s vital interests in the region and for Israel-Palestine peacemaking will be far-reaching. Most observers seem to agree that Israeli fears of the growing political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of a resurgence of Hamas in the West Bank end what little prospect for an Israeli-Palestinian accord might have survived the latest deadlock in the US-brokered peace talks. But in reality there was never the slightest possibility of the parties reaching agreement. Binyamin Netanyahu and his government were convinced they had bested Obama in their confrontation over continued settlement construction, and could now continue gobbling up the West Bank with impunity, disregarding not only American interests but international law and all previous agreements committing Israel to halting the construction of settlements and dismantling all its illegal outposts. (Despite repeated promises, not only were the illegal outposts not removed, many were converted into full-blown settlements.) The long-planned goal of Israel’s colonial enterprise – establishing irreversible control over Palestine through its settlements – was clearly in sight, if not already an accomplished fact.
Israel’s indifference to popular outrage throughout the region over its 44-year occupation was sustained by its belief that authoritarian Arab regimes, whose survival depended to a considerable extent on the US security umbrella, would keep their subjects’ rage in check. The regimes’ deference to the US was responsible for the stability of Egypt’s and Jordan’s peace accords with Israel and for the historic Arab Peace Initiative, agreed in 2002, which committed all Arab countries to full normalisation of relations with Israel, provided a peace accord with the Palestinians was reached.
But America’s credibility and influence had begun to be eroded even before the popular eruptions in the region, in part because of Obama’s capitulation to Netanyahu. Whatever willingness there may have been among Arab regimes to join Israel and the US in an anti-Iran coalition, it will be weakened by the fall of Mubarak. Iran’s influence in the region will be strengthened. The enmity of most Arab regimes towards Iran is not shared by their citizens, primarily because they saw Iran as having assumed leadership in the struggle against Israel’s occupation of Palestine that their own leaders abandoned.
The challenge to Israel of the revolutionary changes now underway may well be existential, depending on how it responds to these events. With Mubarak on the way out, Israel may once again be a pariah nation in the region. Netanyahu’s government has already proved that even if Zionism is not racism, Zionists can be racists. By denying Palestinians a state of their own and bringing about an apartheid state, it may yet succeed in persuading the world that Zionism as practised by Israel is indeed no different from the settler colonialism that existed in South Africa.
Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt is what ruled out a successful military challenge by the other countries in the region. Egypt has by far the most effective military force in the Arab Middle East, and no Arab military challenge to Israel would have been dared without Egypt’s participation. A change of government in Egypt that brings to an end Mubarak’s policy of supporting America’s coddling of Israel would seriously undermine Israel’s strategic situation. Moreover, Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel is unlikely to survive if Egypt’s treaty is abrogated – Jordan wouldn’t want to risk being the only Arab country to maintain normal relations with Israel.
No matter what further changes there may be in the region, developments in Tunisia and Egypt have already drastically curtailed the ability of surviving Arab regimes to move towards a rapprochement with Israel. It is unlikely that the Arab Peace Initiative, disdained by Israel for nearly a decade, will remain on the table. No surviving Arab regime will dare challenge the popular rage against Israel for the humiliations it inflicts on the Palestinians. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the prime cause of the current upheavals, the failure of Arab regimes to halt Palestinian dispossession is not far from the top of the list of popular grievances.
The Obama administration’s handling of the changing realities in the Arab world will not win prizes, even if its reluctance to abandon Mubarak, the regional linchpin of its Middle East policies, is rational. It will have to act fast if it is to restore some of its lost credibility in the newly emerging Middle East, particularly given its ineptness in dealing with Netanyahu’s xenophobic government.
The administration’s best chance of restoring some of its lost credibility may lie here: in the attempt to rescue a functioning and sovereign state from an unyielding Israeli occupation now on the verge of swallowing Palestine whole. If the US were to succeed and a viable Palestinian state emerge, not only would America’s influence in the region grow and Iran’s be weakened, but the major cause of Arab and wider international hostility to Israel – and of popular Arab support for Iran – would be greatly diminished.
Given the record of failed US peace initiatives, is such a rescue operation even conceivable? Can an American president finally abandon the peace process for the fraud it has been, present the parties with a detailed framework for a permanent status solution and obtain Israeli and Palestinian acceptance? The answer is yes, for two important reasons.
First, the recent upheavals have dramatically increased the cost to American interests of the country’s current policies in the Middle East. Not only does it exceed by far the cost to any administration of admitting the truth about Israel’s culpability for the deadlocked peace talks: it’s a cost to America’s interests that even congressmen in thrall to the Israel lobby may now find excessive. No one has suggested the US punish Israel in order to get its way. It need only cease to reward it – with unprecedented military, diplomatic and economic gifts – for its indifference to the damage its sabotaging of a two-state solution has done not just to the Palestinians but to America’s national interests and its own.
Second, Israel’s own cost-benefit calculations have changed. Now that it is on the verge of reverting to an earlier isolation – its peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan are at risk, international assaults on its legitimacy are newly underway – a government that rejects the urgent demands of its only remaining friend will not survive for long.
At this historic turning point, a president who honestly and fully informs the American people of the likely consequences of US leadership being abandoned in a part of the world so critical to America’s national security will have their support – even if he goes so far as to put forward a framework for a two-state accord that ends the conflict between Israel and Palestine.