Israelis and Palestinians, take note

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The past ten days of revolution in the Arab world have been marked by four dramatic developments that could be relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its solution. Saudi Arabia led a Gulf Cooperation Council expeditionary force into Bahrain. A coalition of mainly western countries led an armed intervention in Libya upon the request of the Arab League. In Egypt, a referendum overwhelmingly approved a series of constitutional amendments that were supported by the Muslim Brotherhood and the army but opposed by the youth coalition that led the revolution. And violent protests against the regime erupted throughout Syria.

The revolutionary dynamic in Bahrain, Libya, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere has not yet run its course. Hence any attempt to draw lessons and point to ramifications from events in these countries must be cautious. Nevertheless, what is happening is so dramatic that it begs closer observation by Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Let’s begin with the least likely ramifications and work back to the more immediately relevant. If the GCC can intervene militarily in Bahrain due to fear of Iranian-backed Shiite encroachment there, and if the Arab League can ask the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone over Libya in order to rescue the opposition to Muammar Gaddafi from defeat, this might conceivably suggest the possibility of armed Arab intervention in Palestinian affairs or in some aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There is a school of Israeli strategic thought that has long proposed returning the West Bank, or part thereof, to Jordan, and the Gaza Strip to Egypt. Under present circumstances, such a "solution" is out of the question. But if the current revolutionary wave were to strike these territories in an extreme manner that endangers not only Israel but their Arab neighbors, perhaps the notion that those neighbors would intervene militarily could become a little less unrealistic. Meanwhile, as we shall see, more limited interaction between events in Palestine and those in neighboring countries is certainly possible.

The future of the Gaza Strip’s relationship with Egypt is relevant also within the context of the Egyptian referendum, where for the first time since revolution broke out the Muslim Brotherhood played a central and influential role. It now has to be assumed that the Brotherhood, which is far better organized politically than Egypt’s nebulous youth coalition and the more traditional but small parties like the Wafd, will emerge from September’s parliamentary elections as a major power broker, tolerated by the armed forces and endorsed by a considerable portion of the electorate. The more extreme elements in the Hamas leadership make no secret of their anticipation that this will strengthen their hand–in Gaza, perhaps in Sinai, in the West Bank, and certainly in any future Hamas-Fateh negotiations over unity. Under these circumstances, Egypt might no longer support the Palestinian Authority leadership the way it did under Hosni Mubarak, while a clash between Israel and Hamas in Gaza could provoke a crisis between Israel and Egypt.

Meanwhile, events in Syria pose even greater uncertainties for Israel and the prospects of peace. The Bashar Assad regime has been asking Israel to renew peace negotiations for several years now. Virtually the entire Israeli security establishment endorsed the idea, due to the prospect of leveraging a Golan-for-peace deal into Damascus’ agreement to distance itself from Iran, Hizballah and Hamas. Had they become a reality, Israeli-Syrian negotiations could have had far-reaching consequences for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, whether by pushing the latter to the back burner or by weakening Hamas.

At this point in time, however, Israel is well-advised to sit tight and wait. The outcome in Syria is impossible to predict. If the Assad regime falls, it could be replaced by either a secular or an Islamist Sunni regime or even by more militant Alawites desperate to preserve their vested interests. Or the Assad regime as we know it could survive, whether by liberalizing or, conceivably, by massacring large numbers of its opponents, as Hafez Assad did in Hama in 1982. The outcome, whatever it is, could potentially affect three Israel-related peace processes or prospects: with Syria, with Lebanon and with the Palestinians. It could also lead to war, if Syria’s hundreds of missiles with their chemical warheads fall into the wrong hands.

Beyond these issues lie heavy questions regarding both the potential relationship between Arab democracy, if indeed it blooms, and Arab-Israel peace, as well as the ongoing relevancy of the Arab Peace Initiative in an era of radical Arab regime change. More immediately, however, we must address events inside Palestine that appear to derive their inspiration from the revolutions around us. Relatively moderate and limited youth demonstrations in Ramallah and Gaza have focused thus far on unity rather than on specific regime change in the West Bank or Gaza. Yet in Israeli eyes, even this fairly modest agitation apparently generated an intra-Palestinian political cycle that has played itself out in the form of mortar and rocket attacks from Gaza and terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Itamar.

More such cycles of events are almost certainly in store. It is apparently too late for Israel to initiate peace talks with Syria in the hope of forestalling or influencing revolutionary challenges there. But precisely because developments in Egypt, Syria and possibly even Jordan are liable to end up strengthening Hamas, the Netanyahu government should recognize that it has a powerful interest in strengthening the moderate Palestinian camp through a settlement freeze, confidence-building measures and, above all, sincere negotiations.

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