A recent essay in The Wall Street Journal would have us believe that the Palestine/Israel conflict has nothing to do with upheavals in the Arab world. Emanuele Ottolenghi takes the classic, if superficial, line that decades of repression and economic stagnation, rather than concern about the fate of the Palestinians, were the sparks for the mass movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain.
On one level this is true enough. It took more than dismay at the Palestinian quagmire to bring down the Twin Towers and motivate suicide bombers around the world. The internal conditions in most Arab countries were quite sufficient to generate the long smoldering hopelessness, frustration and violent rage that led to the recent mass demonstrations. All it took was the spark of a dramatic action like the self-immolation in Tunisia combined with instantaneous communication to give people the courage to overthrow political leaders that had lined their own pockets at the expense of the welfare of most of the people. In the process these dictators were able to play the Western leaders for fools by holding up the bogeyman of Al Qaeda. “Of course we are repressing our own people. You should thank us instead of sending over these interfering NGOs. If it were not for us Al Qaeda would sweep through the entire region. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to send the billions of dollars you promised,” ran the line that was accepted by so many gullible governments.
These conditions have been well documented over the years, and people who know the Middle East at all were surprised only by the speed at which the protests spread and the relative ease, except for bizarre mystery world of Libya, with which the ancien regimes crumbled.
But to jump from the reality of this conflict to the conclusion that the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is irrelevant to the current situation defies all logic and common sense. This bit of geo-political acrobatics ignores the serious point that one of the major complaints of the Arab ‘street’ is that the isolated leaders were too close to Israel and didn’t do enough for the Palestinian people. The easy relationship between the Arab security organizations and their Israeli counterpart was justified as a way to keep the lid on the situation and prevent the fundamentalists from taking over.
What really worries the Israelis now is that whoever takes over in Egypt and elsewhere will start paying more real attention to the Palestinian problem. The Israelis and others forgot just how much the Palestinian issue resonates with the masses that were demonstrating in Tahrir Square. Those crowds did not have to be filled with jihadis or Al Qaeda members to be angry at the collusion of the regimes with the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. The new government may not break the treaty with Israel, but we can expect it to be much more vocal and active in support of both Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.
It is also a reality that whatever their governments may have said, many in the Arab world view their relationships with the West through the prism of the Palestinian problem. I can not think of a single discussion I had over the years with ordinary people from Kuwait to Morocco that didn’t sooner or later come around to Palestine. In the most sumptuous home or humble shop the pained question, however politely framed, was always the same, “Why do you let the Israelis treat the Palestinians so badly?” The vast majority of the people were perfectly willing to grant the reality of Israel, but they could not understand the unbalanced treatment of the Palestinians. It made all the Western talk about democracy and human rights in the region seem merely like a cynical exercise of the age old ‘might makes right’ principle.
Israel now has to recalibrate its relations with the new governments. What’s it going to do? Will it maintain the Netanyahu government line that Israel’s security can only be maintained by more defense spending, tighter restrictions on the Palestinians, and more and more settlements on Palestinian land? Or will it recognize that no Arab government, especially the new ones that want to prove they listen to the people, will be able to give Israel the real security it wants as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved?
Ottolenghi maintains that the “…the conventional wisdom that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the mother of all problems in the region has now been exposed as nothing but a myth.” In some ways he is correct. The Palestinian conflict clearly is not the only problem facing the new governments, but, if the new governments want to gain credibility that the former regimes never had, until this burning issue is resolved nothing can really be resolved. For the time being the jihadis and other radical religious elements are very much in the background. One sure way to bring them raging out into the open is to maintain that the Palestinian problem is irrelevant.