The Arab Spring and the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict: international implications

15 april 2013

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, USA). His books include The Third World in Soviet Military Thought (1982), Russia and Arabia: Soviet Foreign Policy toward the Arabian Peninsula (1986), and Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan (2012). Links to many of his articles on Russian foreign policy and other subjects can be found on his website: www.marknkatz.com

Resume: The main impact of the Arab Spring has not been to increase, but to diminish the importance of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the broader politics of the Arab World.

Much has changed in the Middle East since the outbreak of the Arab Spring at the beginning of 2011. Rulers who were in power for decades have been toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. A fierce conflict has raged between government and opposition forces in Syria. Unrest in Bahrain persists. Opposition activity has also increased in Jordan, Oman, and elsewhere. One thing, though, has not changed since the outbreak of the Arab Spring: the decades-long Israeli/Palestinian dispute has continued, with no end in sight.

Many Middle Eastern actors and observers have expressed either the hope or fear (depending on whether they are pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli) that the Arab Spring will have an important impact on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict through bringing about the downfall of Arab governments that had either made peace with Israel or had stopped confronting it directly long ago. More democratic, populist, and/or Islamist governments in the Arab World – they have reasoned – will be much more supportive of their Palestinian “brothers” than the regimes that have already been overthrown or are about to be.

But while this might be the hope or fear of many, what is remarkable is that up to now, the forces of the Arab Spring have done remarkably little to support the Palestinians against the Israelis. Especially noteworthy is the fact that Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, has stated that his government will abide by the American-sponsored 1970s-era Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. The supporters of the Arab Spring, it appears, have other priorities.

Indeed, it will be argued here, the main impact of the Arab Spring has not been to increase, but to diminish the importance of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the broader politics of the Arab world. This article will discuss why this is the case as well as what its implications are for international relations generally. First, though, something needs to be said about the relationship between the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and broader Arab politics prior to the Arab Spring.

ARAB POLITICS AND THE ISRAELI/PALESTINIAN CONFLICT PRIOR TO THE ARAB SPRING

For decades, public opinion in the Arab and Muslim Worlds was genuinely outraged over the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and over the American support for Israel which enabled it. This outrage was fed by state-sponsored media in authoritarian Arab and Muslim states which published an endless stream of stories about how Palestinians were suffering at the hands of Israel, and how America was responsible for this.

I have visited many countries in the region over the past three decades. In the 1980s, I went there in order to conduct research on how Soviet foreign policy toward this part of the world was viewed locally. For the most part, nobody wanted to talk about this or any other subjects except the unjustness of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and American support for Israel.

Whether in the region or outside of it, I was always struck by the deep-seated emotion with which Arabs and Muslims talked about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Their outrage was quite genuine. But I could not help but wonder: Why did Arabs and Muslims focus so much on the Israeli/Palestinian issue when there were so many other issues that confronted them, including authoritarianism in every Arab and most Muslim countries, widespread poverty and corruption, other conflicts between Muslims and non-Muslims (such as over Kashmir, Mindanao, Chechnya, Bosnia, or Kosovo), or even conflicts between Muslims? While their castigating the U.S. for supporting Israel was understandable, why did Arabs and Muslims not seem to care in the least that the U.S. and its allies were helping Muslims in both Bosnia and Kosovo?

In most of these conversations, conflicts between Muslims, and between Arabs in particular, were dismissed as having been engineered somehow by “Zionism and imperialism.” Even persistent authoritarianism in the Arab World was attributed to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. For how, those whom I asked to explain it usually responded, could Arab states democratize as long as they were still in a state of war with Israel (even if they were not actively fighting)?

What was clear was that authoritarian Arab governments in particular often found it useful to emphasize the Israeli/Palestinian issue as a means of distracting attention from – or even explaining away – their own domestic and foreign policy failures. Inside any given Arab country, public criticism of the government was forbidden, but people were free to vent their frustration on Israel and America. And when internal problems or conflicts with neighboring states could not be hidden, Israel and America – and not any Arab government – could always be portrayed as the cause. The strategy worked all too well, as Arab publics readily embraced this line of reasoning.

There have at times, of course, been some Arab governments that really sought to “confront” Israel. But as time went on, it became increasingly clear to most of them that there was little to be gained from actually fighting with it. Many Arab governments, then, pursued a dual policy of continuing to denounce the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and American support for Israel while at the same time doing little or nothing for the Palestinians and pursuing cooperation with the U.S. and sometimes even with Israel itself. For these Arab governments, keeping their publics focused on the Palestinian issue stilled played a useful role in distracting domestic attention from internal problems.

ARAB POLITICS AND THE ISRAELI/PALESTINIAN CONFLICT SINCE THE ARAB SPRING

It is still not clear whether the Arab Spring revolutions are going to result in democratization, authoritarian Islamist regimes, or anarchy. But whatever their motivation or ultimate direction, the Arab Spring movements have all prioritized what is happening in their own countries over the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This does not mean that the Arab Spring movements or governments do not care about the Palestinian cause or are more tolerant toward Israel. The principal agenda for the Arab Spring movements and governments, though, is domestic. While sympathetic toward the Palestinian cause, the forces of the Arab Spring do not seem willing to do or risk much in order to help it.

Egypt’s President Morsi is a case in point. He has cracked down on his internal opponents, and his commitment to democracy is increasingly questionable. But as the March 2012 conflict between Israel and Palestinian forces in Gaza showed, he was not willing to do more for Hamas besides mediating a cease-fire. Egypt’s relationship with the U.S. – especially the military assistance it receives from Washington – was simply too important to risk for the sake of the Palestinian cause. Nor have any of the other new governments that have arisen during the Arab Spring done anything significant to help the Palestinian cause.

The Arab Spring, then, has not changed the fact that Arab public opinion overwhelmingly supports the Palestinian cause, opposes the Israeli occupation, and criticizes the U.S. for supporting Israel. The Arab Spring, however, has brought about a change in the Arab World’s priorities. Domestic issues inside each Arab country (whether there has been a change of government there or not) now take precedence over the Palestinian issue with Arab publics.

This has important implications for various regional actors. To begin with, the Arab Spring does not appear to be as harmful to Israel as many Israelis had feared, or as beneficial to the Palestinian cause as many Palestinians had hoped. In addition, the Arab Spring has meant public opinion in countries where long-ruling authoritarian regimes still remain in power are less amenable to the argument that the ills they suffer from are somehow due to the persistence of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Syria is a case in point: the Assad regime’s support for the Palestinian cause clearly has not served to prevent its internal Syrian opponents from growing stronger and stronger. By contrast, the forces supporting the Arab Spring – whether they be democratic, Islamist, tribal, or whatever – that focus on internal problems and not on the Palestinian issue have gained popularity (if not always power) throughout the Arab World.

International Implications

What previously made the Israeli/Palestinian dispute important for international relations was that it was considered important by so many others. Because whatever happened in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute affected the Arab World as a whole, it also affected the prospects for outside powers which sought to be influential there. During the Cold War, American support for Israel was so unpopular in the Arab World generally that the Soviet Union’s adoption of a pro-Palestinian stance resulted in Moscow enjoying a highly positive image in many Arab countries for many years. On the other hand, one of the reasons why President Sadat ended Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union in the 1970s was that he (and many Egyptians) believed that Moscow was not doing enough to help the Arab world vis-И-vis Israel.

American domestic politics has dictated that the U.S. support Israel despite the fact that this policy (as many American Middle East specialists have repeatedly pointed out) has made America highly unpopular in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. Especially since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Washington has tried to compensate for this through actively promoting both an Israeli-Arab and an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort has not been successful, it was important for Washington to at least be seen as trying to resolve this conflict. Russia and the European Union have also actively supported various Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts less out of the conviction that they would ever succeed and more out of the desire to be seen supporting this process and thus bolster their relations with and images in the Arab and Muslim Worlds more generally.

Diplomatic efforts on the part of America, Europe, and Russia with regard to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, then, were primarily important for their relations with the Arab World more broadly because of how the Arab World prioritized the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. But if, as has been argued here, the Arab Spring has reduced the priority of the Israeli/Palestinian dispute in the Arab World, this has important implications for those external powers which have been most active in promoting Israeli/Palestinian peace.

Though the supporters of neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian cause will thank me for saying so, the decreased priority on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the broader Arab World that the Arab Spring has brought about also decreases the importance of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for those external powers (America, Europe, and Russia) that have been most concerned with trying to resolve it. If the forces of the Arab Spring are more concerned about conditions in their own individual countries than they are with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, then they are likely to be more sensitive to whether those external powers support or oppose the Arab Spring than with their approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Similarly, Arab publics now more eager for change in their own countries are unlikely to view favorably external powers which they perceive as preventing change, no matter what those external powers may say or do regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

It is somewhat ironic, of course, that the Arab World’s decreased priority on the Israeli/Palestinian issue that has resulted from the Arab Spring has occurred at a time when the international community as a whole has accorded greater legitimacy to the Palestinian cause through the overwhelming UN General Assembly vote in November 2012 to grant non-member observer state status to the Palestinian Authority. But in my view, only those whose primary (if not exclusive) concern is the Israeli/Palestinian conflict can consider this move a great victory for the Palestinian cause or a great setback for Israel. For all that the November 2012 UNGA resolution did was to promote the Palestinian Authority from the status of “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state.” Either way, the Palestinian Authority is still a non-member. It may be that the true purpose of the resolution was to give the appearance of international support for the Palestinian cause without doing anything of substance to support it (much like the policy that many Arab governments have long pursued).

Indeed, some important external powers have long understood that it is not in their interests to become involved in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. In his 2010 book entitled, The East Moves West: India, China, and Asia’s Growing Presence in the Middle East, American scholar Geoffrey Kemp noted that, “the hyperbolic propaganda found in the Middle East and the West about the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Middle East stability does not seem to have had much impact on the practical decision by key Asian countries to do business with Israel” as well as other countries in the region. Even before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Kemp observed that, “the Asians have no interest in becoming heavy hitters in the exhaustive and frustrating search for Middle East peace.”

Should America, Europe, and Russia emulate the rising powers of Asia through also adopting a policy of “benign neglect” toward the Israeli/Palestinian conflict? Whether or not they should, it is doubtful that they could. Their complex historical and societal ties to the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, their images of themselves as “responsible” great powers, and the existence of long-entrenched and well-connected Israeli/Palestinian “peace process” communities in them all make it unlikely that America, Europe, and Russia can bring themselves to distance themselves from this dispute the way that the rising Asian powers have. Nor do America, the EU, and Russia want to acknowledge that the efforts of the “Mideast Quartet” (consisting of the U.S., EU, Russia, and the UN) which has been attempting to resolve the Israeli/Palestinian conflict since 2002 have been a failure.

The reduced priority of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the Arab World brought about by the Arab Spring, though, provides America, Europe, and Russia the opportunity to reorient their foreign policy priorities. Instead of the concern of presidents and prime ministers, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict might more properly be a matter dealt with by ambassadors and junior ministers from these countries instead. Let our presidents, prime ministers, and their closest advisers concern themselves instead with how to respond to the Arab Spring—a phenomenon that is not only far more important than the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for the Arab World, but for America, Europe, and Russia as well.

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