After the Arab Spring – Part I

The Palestinian-Israeli pressure cooker of complex mix of interests and injustices has long threatened to explode – an issue ready-made for extremists of all stripes to needle leaders in Israel, the Palestine Authority or the United States. Since the Arab Spring swept old regimes from power, notably in Egypt, Muslims everywhere are emboldened to demand democratic institutions and full representation. A three-part YaleGlobal series explores the new contours of the Middle East rising out of the fiery spring. In the first article, Gustav Ranis of Yale University analyzes history of the conflict and the impact of the Arab Spring, including new challenges to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. This is the backdrop to a Palestinian plan to seek recognition as a state from the UN during the General Assembly meeting, despite vehement opposition from Israel and the United States. Frustration is escalating and the status quo is unsustainable, maintains Ranis. He argues that escalation of the conflict bound to occur from the UN move makes it imperative that the parties to the decades-old dispute, particularly the United States, forcefully reject the extreme positions and get to work negotiating immediate agreement. – YaleGlobal

After the Arab Spring – Part I

Emboldened Palestine’s quest for UN recognition puts a spotlight on Israel’s inflexibility
Gustav Ranis
Wednesday, September 21, 2011

New confrontation: Egyptian presidential candidate Amr Moussa (top-left) wants to reset Egypt-Israel relations; In Gaza, Israeli soldiers dig in

NEW HAVEN: The world is fully aware that it’s witnessing an escalating crisis between Israel and its leading Islamic friends, Egypt and Turkey. Prelude to the UN vote on recognition of the state of Palestine has brought it to a boil promising  unpredictable consequences.

In early 1977, largely due to President Anwar Sadat’s initiative leading to the Camp David Accords, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel and officially recognize Israel’s right to exist. This was never a popular decision in the Arab world; indeed Egypt was suspended from the Arab League from 1979 to 1989, and Sadat was assassinated by members of the local Islamic Jihad in 1981.

Under his successor, Hosni Mubarak, what’s been called a “Cold Peace” was maintained through various intifadas, Israel’s incursion into Lebanon, as well as other repercussions of the continuing conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. Egypt withdrew its ambassador from Israel several times during these crises, but whether motivated by the continued substantial largesse of US foreign aid, military and economic, or hope of playing the role of intermediary between Gaza and Israel, Egypt has maintained diplomatic relations with Israel. This is despite the fact that a 2006 poll had 92 percent of Egyptians viewing Israel as an enemy nation and even the military, despite close ties to the US, continuing to see Israel as its primary adversary.

Now that the Arab spring protests swept Mubarak from power, the US and Israel have entered a new ballgame with new players. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Egyptians’ euphoria focused on ending decades of dictatorship and fixing longstanding internal problems. Relations with Israel and resentment with Mubarak’s coddling of both Israel and the US, contrary to the sentiments of the street, was temporarily on the backburner. But it’s now moving forward.

Inevitably, unreasonably high expectations for swift economic and social benefits are being disappointed – and so it’s not surprising that Egyptian politicians are falling in line with popular sentiment and increasingly fingering Israel as a useful scapegoat. Amr Moussa, a leading candidate for the Egyptian presidency has stated that he wants to “reset” relations with Israel. Ayman Nour, another potential presidential candidate, wants to “reassess” the peace treaty with Israel. Further worsening the atmosphere, on August 18 Palestinians fired across the Sinai border, recently remilitarized by agreement, killing eight Israelis; in response, Israel killed at least three Egyptian soldiers. 

Israel, understandably anxious not to rock an already unstable boat, apologized, which as we know from recent Turkish experience, does not come easy. Nevertheless, protesters broke into the Cairo embassy and succeeded in replacing the Israeli flag with its Egyptian counterpart, to the vociferous acclaim of the populace. 

Subsequently, in quiet diplomacy Washington succeeded in urging Egypt to curb the invasion, restore the Israeli flag and organizing safe exit of the Israeli ambassador. The day after the attack, initially with no intervention by local authorities, about 80 of Israel’s embassy staff members and their families, left Egypt. Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces faces ever-mounting pressure to sever relations with Israel.

At the same time Israel’s continued unwillingness to apologize for the Gaza flotilla deaths in May 2010 has led to a serious deterioration of relations with Turkey. Following the September 2 United Nations report categorizing Israel’s response methods as “excessive and unreasonable,” Turkey cut its military commercial ties with Israel and threatened a more pronounced military presence in the region. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan toured Egypt September 12 to 14 to great acclaim and met with the military leaders.

Thus, in short order, Israel has become estranged from its main Islamic friends in the region. Even Jordan is giving Israel an increasingly cold shoulder.

Israel is clearly concerned as it well should be – yet not enough to abandon its bunker-like stance, apparently condoned by the US, on the underlying big issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The direction of the Arab protests hangs in the balance.

The threat to the peace treaty is real. Egyptian anger on the streets is moving relentlessly, and leaders could take the direction of Hamas and even Iran.

Moreover, while Iranian-backed Fatah and Hamas recently reached a tentative agreement to reunite, the reason for this fragile reunion is creating the necessary pre-condition for the UN General Assembly to issue a declaration establishing a united Palestinian state – an event deplored by both Israel and the US and bound to escalate frictions globally. The US will predictably be forced to use its veto in the Security Council and suffer an ignominious defeat – and loss in the estimation of the Muslim world in the General Assembly.

To date, Israel’s response to the Arab Spring and the generally deteriorating situation has been additional housing units for settlers in East Jerusalem, opposed by the Palestinians and the US; beefing up Israel’s defense budget; and attacking Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for the reconciliation with Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently confirmed that successful negotiations need to start with the 1967 boundaries, coupled with land swaps, the same notion he crucified President Barack Obama for embracing during his March visit to the US. But Netanyahu has made no move for a restart of negotiations. Most recently he set up 100 settler security teams around West Bank settlements to stem protests over the request for UN recognition of an independent Palestinian state, presumably anticipating a repeat of the May and June incursions, with thousands of Palestinians and their supporters trying to cross Israel’s borders from Lebanon and Syria.

The whole world, especially the diplomatic Quartet on the Middle East –  the US, the UN, Russia and the EU, represented by Tony Blair – realizes that Israel’s immobility in the face of such dynamic changes in the neighborhood. Such immobility, reinforcing militancy and creating increasingly capable enemies at worst and newly competitive democracies at best, can only undermine its long-term security. Demographic trends within Israel and the Palestinian territories, with the Palestinian population forecast to grow rapidly even in the absence of any major “right of return” from abroad being agreed upon, work against Israel’s long-term ability to maintain the status quo.

The overriding fact is that the two-state solution to which everyone still pays lip service is increasingly in jeopardy. The one-state alternative, eventually dominated by non-Jews, can only be viewed as an existential threat to the Jewish state.

Obama is admittedly unpopular in Israel – with the right wing majority because he initially weighed in heavily on curbing settlement activity and then with the “Peace Now” minority after his retreat, presumably because of pressure from the Jewish lobby at home and his specific concern with Florida’s Jewish population in the 2012 presidential election.

Obama needs to speak up now and stop equivocating. He must use his eroding capital and place US proposals for peace and mutual security before the Knesset and the world. For decades, it’s been abundantly clear that the parties cannot move without US help. And time is decidedly not on the side of securing an agreement following the basic contours of what’s been negotiated and deemed workable over the same many decades. Even if no new negotiations can be expected before the UN vote, the US leadership position will be clear for all to see.


Gustav Ranis is the Frank Altschul Professor Emeritus of International Economics at Yale University.

Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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