Uprising in Cairo, joy in Gaza: Hamas administration allows Palestinians to demonstrate in support of anti-Mubarak protesters
TEL AVIV: The uprising in Egypt threatens to upset a precarious balance in the Middle East and make resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict more difficult, if not impossible. Political upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt have added to recent developments like the revelation of Palestinian negotiating documents in pushing the likelihood of a settlement beyond the realm of possibility.
To appreciate the impact of the Egypt uprising and political changes likely to come, one has to look not only at the uproar over recent events like Al Jazeera’s release of documents showing alleged Palestinian concessions to Israel but the deeper malady troubling Palestinian and Israeli relations.
The “Palestine Papers” released by Al Jazeera and the Guardian are purported to be documents purloined from the Palestinian Authority (PA), showing secrets of Israel-Palestinian negotiations, claiming that PA made two concessions: regarding neighborhoods of east Jerusalem that Israel might retain and the number of Palestinian refugees who might come to live in Israel, rather than Palestine. These papers – especially as presented in Al Jazeera and the Guardian – are one-sided and misleading. For example, they don’t mention that the PA offers were made in one meeting, then apparently retracted. Nor do they mention the substantial concessions Israel offered.
The “Palestine Papers” are one-sided and don’t mention the substantial concessions offered by Israel.
But discarded concessions are less important in assessing the impact of these papers on the peace process. The actual effect lies in what the Palestinians generally and Hamas saw in them.
The effect can be summed up in one word – disastrous.
One of the main reasons that the Palestinian leadership cannot negotiate peace is that it knows full well the steps necessary to succeed would set off an explosion of anger against them from Hamas, the general public and their own colleagues in Fatah. And that’s precisely what happened.
The Palestinian negotiators intimate that they fear for their lives and deny that they had offered any compromises. They even denounce the alleged revelations as an Israel-Hamas plot. After enduring angry criticism, it could be many years before any Palestinian leader dares offer the slightest compromise with Israel. If the peace process was near moribund before, it’s fully moribund now.
The revolution in Egypt adds to the catastrophic effect. Westerners like to imagine that Egypt will become a stable democracy full of rights and good feelings, a beacon of democratic hope to the Arab region. Everyone hopes, but there’s also strong doubt that this will be the case. Serous Israeli analysts, regardless of their other political views, have reached broad consensus that Egyptian-Israeli relations will decline.
Palestinians are likely to take three lessons from events in Egypt and Tunisia.
After enduring angry criticism, it could be many years before any Palestinian leader dares offer the slightest compromise with Israel.
First, the power of the people is greater than the rulers. In other words, if the people rise up and fight the power, they can win. Translation into Palestinian politics: It doesn’t matter how strong Israel’s army is, uprisings can defeat it without any need for diplomatic compromise. Revolution works.
Second, the forces of Islamism are rising. Western observers tend to deny the growing power of the Muslim Brotherhood, but whether or not it gains power in Egypt, the fact that the group is invited for dialogue is being taken as a positive for Hamas and negative for the Palestinian Authority.
A third lesson widely drawn is that the United States is an unreliable ally. Consequently, Israel, the PA and Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia are unlikely to take risks or make concessions based on American guarantees.
It should be remembered that Hamas is descended from the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the new Egyptian government is likely to be far more hostile to Israel and likely to open the border to the Gaza Strip. Hamas will become stronger and better able to challenge the PA. This means that Hamas can better exercise leverage on the PA while, at the same time, the PA is more frightened that any serious negotiations with Israel open it to being denounced as a traitor and losing support on the West Bank.
The new Egyptian government is likely to be far more hostile to Israel and likely to open the border to the Gaza Strip.
Finally, even if the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t come to power, the uprisings could signal a return to the pre-Sadat, pre-peace era in Egyptian policy, to the days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, 1955 to 1970. During that period, Egypt tried to take regional leadership on an Arab nationalist platform. It sponsored Palestinian Fedayeen to attack Israel, fought three wars with Israel and tried to destabilize many Arab governments.
Egypt’s next government is likely to be radical, though not Islamist. At best, it will stop observing the Egypt-Israel treaty; at worst, it will explicitly abrogate it. Hamas will receive as many arms as it wishes over the border. The sabotage attack on the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline may signal the end of that arrangement. Israelis, tourists or businessmen, cannot visit Egypt safely.
Whether or not this is an accurate scenario, Palestinians and other Arabs, especially Islamists, will largely reason like this: Islamism is winning! Egypt has fallen and will be hostile. Lebanon is now ruled by Hezbollah for all practical purposes. Syria is with us. Iran strengthens and will soon have nuclear weapons. Even the Jordanian regime might fall. Israel will be surrounded and once again help will come for the Palestinian revolution, armed and otherwise, from Arab states. The United States is weak and can’t, or perhaps won’t, protect its allies. So who needs diplomacy and why should we compromise?
Egypt’s next government is likely to be radical, though not Islamist.
Israel’s deep pessimism is in sharp contrast with many foreign observers who believe it’s possible to achieve comprehensive peace in a relatively short time. Foreign observers assume the problems are merely technical and can be solved by clever compromises or innovative methods.
It’s necessary to go beneath the surface to understand why this is the longest-running active conflict in the world today with no solution in sight. On the basis of long and close observation the reason appears to be the Palestinian leadership’s unwillingness and inability to accept Israel’s existence and compromise peace.
Two words are significant: “Unwillingness” because the vast majority of leaders of Fatah, the group that controls the PA are still radical and want total victory, a goal that includes eliminating Israel. Beyond “future President” Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, there are few moderates. And only the insistence of Western donors keeps these two in power. The word “inability” applies because Abbas and Fayyad are weak. No matter what they want, they cannot deliver on any deal that would possibly be acceptable to the most dovish Israeli leader. Beyond that, there’s the problem of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip and has at least 25 percent popular support on the West Bank.
Any moderation by the PA invites Hamas denunciation and increased subversion. Any moderation by individual PA leaders brings denunciation, attacks on their jobs and even physical attacks from rivals in Fatah. The events in Tunisia and Egypt can only increase the self-confidence of Hamas.
In short, these events are disastrous for any hope of Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli peace. It would be wishful thinking to think otherwise. Whatever one wishes, reality must be recognized.