Egypt, Israel and Palestine: towards the promised land of peace?

 
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By Khaled Diab

 It is high time for Israelis and Palestinians – with grassroots support from Egyptians – to unlock their latent people’s power and forge a popular peace.

Monday 15 August 2011

Although it has primarily focused on domestic issues, the Egyptian revolution has sent ripples of hope and shockwaves of fear across the Middle East. Not only has Egypt traditionally been regarded as the unspoken leader of the Arab world, the dramatic exhibition of people power in action has inspired ordinary people everywhere and terrified the region’s fossilised leadership. 

As Egyptians grapple to redefine their relationship with those who govern them, questions are being asked about how the revolution will affect Egypt’s foreign policy. One area of particular interest is how the ‘New Egypt’ will relate to Israel and the Palestinian struggle for statehood. 

Like other political elites across the Middle East, the Israeli and Palestinian leadership – including both Fatah and Hamas – have been eyeing the Egyptian revolution with nervousness, because it threatens to upset the status quo on which they depend. But reality is gradually sinking in.

Many questions about the future remain. Can post-revolution Egypt play a more dynamic mediating role in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process? Will Egypt’s cold peace with Israel chill further? Will popular anger at Israel’s occupation spill over into Egypt ‘tearing up’ its peace accord with Israel, as many Israelis fear? Is the enthusiasm of some Palestinians that Egypt’s ’return to dignity’ will help their cause warranted? How will the Egyptian revolution affect Israeli and Palestinian politics and how the two sides relate to each other, and to Egypt?

I will seek to answer these questions, as well as to consider how Egypt can best walk the tight rope of championing the Palestinian cause and nudging Israel towards a just resolution of the conflict, without returning to the ‘bad old days’ of futile belligerence. I will also explore what role the largely uninvolved Egyptian grassroots and civil society can play in bridging the gap between the two sides.

Israelis: between fear and enthusiasm

First, I will consider the Israeli response to the revolution and how the revolution has played out among Israel’s political class, the general public and progressive activists. When the revolution first broke in late January, the initial reaction of the Israeli government and establishment was one of concern and even panic, though ministers and officials were initially ordered not to make any public statements on the issue.

This ‘wait and see’ attitude rapidly shifted when the Mubarak regime looked in real danger of collapsing. Israel’s hard-line prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu even toured Europe and the United States to try to convince Western leaders to prop up the collapsing and corrupt dictator, though he now, at least rhetorically, welcomes the prospect of democracy in Egypt.

So what was behind this diplomatic panic and why was Israel, which describes itself as the Middle East’s “only democracy”, so fearful of the Egyptian people’s democratic aspirations?

In Israel, like in the United States and some parts of Europe, Mubarak was seen as a ‘benign dictator’ who protected both Western and Israeli interests against the perceived threat of extremist Islamism and kept Israel’s western front, historically the most dangerous, quiet.

In addition, many Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, have long been lecturing that the reason that peace has been elusive is not due to the Israeli occupation but to the absence of democracy in the Arab world. Now what if the dawn of Arab democracy arrives and Israel still fails to resolve its conflict with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world?

In addition, I suspect that the current extremist Israeli government, despite its rhetoric of wanting peace with the Palestinians if only there were a true “partner for peace”, feared the unknown impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Palestinian question. Would Palestinians follow the Egyptian and Tunisian examples of mass protest and disobedience? Would a revolutionary Egypt ratchet up the pressure on Israel to reach a deal with the Palestinians or, worse, side more clearly and robustly with the Palestinians?

Among the general Israeli public who know little about Egypt and the Arab world, and understand it even less, the experts and officials who lined up to deliver dire warning that Egypt could well become the “next Iran” and tear up the Camp David peace treaty pumped up the fear level among a population which already felt isolated, surrounded and beleaguered.

A typical response was delivered by Israel’s president Shimon Peres in February. Expressing his feeling that Mubarak’s “contribution to peace will never be forgotten”, he warned that “”Elections in Egypt are dangerous. Should the Muslim Brotherhood be elected they will not bring peace.” 

At the time, I wrote that such fears were unfounded: that Egypt was no Iran and that the country was unlikely to renege on its peace treaty with Israel, though, given the plight of the Palestinians, “this probably means that the cold Egyptian-Israeli peace will become frostier”. 

Since then, events seem to have largely confirmed my analysis. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is a significant force in the post-revolutionary landscape, it is by no means the only show in town, despite backroom deals between its leadership and the army’s top brass. In fact, a July poll showed that the Ikhwan’s approval rating stood at only around 17%.

In addition, now that the possibility of entering government has become realistic, the group has demonstrated its political pragmatism. Despite its official opposition to peace with Israel and its call for the Camp David agreement to be reviewed, a spokesman has said that the future of the peace treaty would be up to “the Egyptian people and not the Brotherhood”. 

And it appears that most Egyptians desire peace. Two recent polls (here and here) showed that, in addition to supporting the creation of an independent Palestinian state, nearly two-thirds of respondents were in favour of maintaining the peace deal with Israel. 

But it would be a mistake to think that the Egyptian revolution lacks support in Israel. Not only have some in the liberal and progressive end of the Israeli media spectrum expressed support for the revolution, a number of voices in its more conservative reaches have also publicised their backing. 

Writing in The Jerusalem Post last week, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach chastised Israel’s former deputy prime minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer for expressing admiration for Mubarak. “The unseemly spectacle of the Middle East’s sole democracy failing to support a revolutionary freedom movement in Arab countries is a stark omission that the Arabs are not likely to forget,” he wrote.

More importantly, the Egyptian revolution and the ‘Arab Spring’ in general enjoy a surprising amount of grassroots support in Israel, especially among the young and liberal, with various groups releasing songs and letters of support. I have personally encountered numerous Israelis who wax enthusiastic about it. “[The Arab Spring] has made me more eager to dream that the borders will open one day,” Mati Shemoelof, an Israeli journalist, poet and activist told me over drinks. “And I feel that we can only learn from this fabulous, new, brave movement,” he added.

As if to confirm his point, Israel has subsequently been gripped by protests over soaring housing prices, centred on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild’s Avenue, which has been described by some commentators as the country’s own “Tahrir Square”. Moreover, the protests provide a perhaps unprecedented opportunity for Israelis and Palestinians (both Israelis citizens and those in the West Bank and Gaza) to rally around a common issue – housing shortages – that affect them all.

Although the protests have so far remained apolitical, more and more Israelis are connecting the housing crisis within Israel to the generous state subsidies lavished on West Bank settlements and the high cost of maintaining the occupation.

By removing the single most divisive issue in Israeli politics, the protesters have created a safe space for Israelis of all ethnic, national and class identities to act together,” Dimi Reider and Aziz Abu Sarah wrote in the New York Times earlier this month. “Israel will never become the progressive social democracy the protesters envision until it sheds the moral stain and economic burden of the occupation,” they went on to caution. 

Palestinians: inspired but disillusioned

Palestinian reactions to the Egyptian revolution have been complex and divided, both at the official and popular level. Fatah, which received a lot of backing from the Egyptian regime, tried to walk the tight rope of supporting both Mubarak and the “legitimate demands” of the people. 

“We hope that Egypt manages to overcome this crisis while preserving its achievements and meeting the legitimate demands for democracy, political reform, and popular participation,” was Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s reaction in early February, according to the al-Ayyam newspaper.

 The extremist Islamist group Hamas, too, has been lukewarm about the Egyptian revolution. Although Hamas despised the former Egyptian regime’s hostility to the movement and Egypt’s collaboration in the blockade of Gaza, the secular nature of the youth spearheading the revolution and the sidelining of the Muslim Brotherhood worried the Islamic movement. In addition, like the PA, Hamas also benefits from the status quo and has entertained fears that the Egyptian people’s example might inspire Gazans to rise up against Hamas and its increasingly repressive rule.

 Hamas witnessed an inkling of this possibility when a Facebook page calling for a ‘Day of Rage’ in Gaza against the Islamist movement attracted 10,000 members within only three days, despite the intermittent power cuts and relatively low internet penetration in the Strip.

This might explain why both Hamas and the PA suppressed, in the early days of the revolution, rallies in support of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts.

However, at the grassroots level, the majority of Palestinians seem to feel solidarity with their Egyptian neighbours. Ever since I moved to Jerusalem a few months ago, most Palestinians I have encountered have reacted very positively to the Egyptian revolution. Everywhere I go, I receive warm congratulations as if I was the father or the midwife of the uprising!

While out researching an article in a tiny Palestinian village effectively cut off from the outside world by settlements, the locals I met got sidetracked from talking about their demoralising plight to enthuse about the achievements of the Egyptian people. “You Egyptians have raised the head of every Arab,” Mohammed Barakat, a local lawyer, told me, in a typical reaction.

Even in the more glitzy surroundings of a luxury hotel in Ramallah, at an official celebration of the 23 July revolution hosted by the Egyptian consulate, Salam Fayyad launched into rhetorical acrobatics to pay tribute to both the 1952 and 2011 revolutions, even though the latter only came about because the earlier failed to deliver on its promises.

In addition to awakening hopes that the Egyptian revolution will lead Egypt to become more supportive of the Palestinian struggle for statehood, the protest movement in Egypt has inspired some dedicated young Palestinian activists, under the umbrella of the so-called March 15 movement, to agitate for change

The date refers to the day when organisers employing social media, text messaging and word of mouth managed to draw thousands of protesters on to the streets of Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as Gaza City.

 However, their demands were not wholesale regime change, but reconciliation. “Our top priority is to end the divisions within Palestinian society. This is the only way to deal with the occupation,” Z, one of the young founders of the movement in Ramallah, explained to me.

That said, the movement has not managed to replicate the most successful ingredient of the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain: constant pressure from the streets. This is partly due to the two-tiered nature of the oppression facing Palestinians, and the restrictions on their movement imposed by the occupation. “Unfortunately, we have two levels of repression in Palestine: Israeli and domestic,” says Z.

In addition, there is the psychological barrier of widespread despair and disillusionment afflicting wide swaths of the population. “The problem among Palestinians is that revolutions are nothing new, yet nothing changes or things get worse,” Z observes. “Neither uprisings nor negotiations have worked, Palestinians believe – we’re still under occupation.”

This sense that whatever happens, the Palestinians are screwed might help explain why quite a few Palestinians I meet are despondent about the ultimate outcome of the Egyptian revolution, with some expressing their expectations that Egyptian will revert to dictatorship. A few, probably drawing on their sense of powerlessness, have even expressed their suspicions that the revolution is not an expression of the will of the Egyptian people but a joint CIA-Mossad conspiracy.

Nevertheless, a number of observers believe that the Egyptian-brokered Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement – despite its clear weaknesses – was partly a sign of the success of the youth protest movement. It was inspired, they say, by the fear that ordinary Palestinians would follow the Tunisian and Egyptian lead and rise up against the oppressive rule of Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. In addition, it has been viewed as an indication of the more robust role post-revolutionary Egypt can play in the Palestinian struggle. Similarly, Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing has been interpreted as an early indication of the New Egypt’s more sympathetic approach to the plight of the Palestinians.

 September: Palestine or the Palestinians?

We are only a few short weeks away from the moment of truth, when the Palestinian leadership plan to go to the United Nations and demand the world body’s recognition of Palestine as a state. 

It strikes me that Palestinians, disillusioned, demoralised and desperate are screaming out to the international community, and particularly the United Nations: “You got us into this mess. Now get us out of it.”

There are parallels to be drawn between this bid and the 1947 UN partition plan which paved the way, despite Arab rejection, to the creation of the state of Israel. However, this time around it is unlikely to serve the Palestinians as well because they are too weak, the Israelis too powerful and the international community lacks the wherewithal to impose a solution on the two parties. Besides, if we are to learn anything from the tragic past, it is that UN involvement with only one side’s support was disastrous, and there is no reason to think it won’t be again.

Personally, I can’t help thinking that, rather than grant Palestinians the statehood they desire, the unilateral UN option could backfire by ending in failure or resulting in a virtual but hollow state that enjoys the sheen of international legitimacy but does not actually exist on the ground.

And I’m not the only one with misgivings. Earlier this week, a young Palestinian activist told me: “I think that nothing will really change on the ground.” He added: “I am really afraid of the PA because they will not ask for a full membership of the UN and instead they will go for non-member status which will not help us in this movement but they will sell it to us as a victory.”

The main reason that Palestinians might shy away from demanding full membership is a function of the way the UN operates. For a country to gain membership to the world body, the UN Security Council must first recommend statehood to the General Assembly. And judging by previous and current form, Washington is very likely to veto any such proposal. In fact, some US officials have warned that Washington could withdraw its funding for the UN, if the proposed vote goes ahead.

Of course, there is a chance that Abbas and the Palestinian leadership are actually not seriously contemplating going to the UN and are using this as a bluff to focus Israeli minds, lure Israel back to the negotiating table and force it to offer the Palestinians a viable state along the pre-1967 borders. But if that is the case, it looks like Israel has decided to call their bluff.

The Israeli reaction to possible UN recognition of Palestinian statehood is difficult to gauge but it is unlikely to be positive. The UN option enjoys the backing of some Israelis who see in it a ‘win-win’ solution for both sides. But such an enlightened Israeli view is a minority one, and the Israeli government and much of the public interpret the plan as an act of hostility.

Besides, previous declarations of statehood achieved little. Palestine, which has existed as a virtual state for decades, and is currently recognised bilaterally by over 110 countries, including Egypt, still remains a state-in-waiting. For example, the 1988 unilateral Palestinian Declaration of Independence, which was made in exile by the PLO in Algiers, was little more than an exercise in symbolism.

The real gains for the Palestinian cause were being made, a quarter of a century before the ‘Arab Spring’, by the ordinary Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza who rose up in the largely peaceful and leaderless first intifada, paving the way to the peace process and the two-state solution. 

New Egypt and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Until now, the impact of the Egyptian revolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been difficult to gauge. Nonetheless, a number of positive and negative ramifications can be discerned.

On the negative side, the upheavals in Egypt and other parts of the region connected to the Arab Spring have diverted much of the global interest away from the Palestinians question. It has also enabled Israel to more or less quietly create more ‘facts on the ground’ ahead of the Palestinians plan to go to the UN in September. This can be seen, for instance, in the accelerated rate of evictions, displacements and demolitions in East Jerusalem and ‘Area C’ of the West Bank this year.

On the positive side, Egypt has already taken some action that was aimed at improving the situation, such as brokering the Palestinian reconciliation agreement and easing restrictions on Gaza. More intangibly, the Egyptian revolution has provided both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership with a taste of what can happen when an unjust and untenable status quo is left to fester unattended for too long.

In the longer term, many commentators have expressed hope that a democratic Egypt can play a more robust and vibrant role as a peace broker and help mediate some form of reconciliation and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Some more militant and extremist Palestinians hope, and many Israelis fear, that Egypt will become more hostile and belligerent in its support of the Palestinian cause and its opposition to the occupation.

Personally, I don’t expect either outcome is likely. However, a democratic Egypt more in tune with its public’s mood might act as a deterrent against excessive Israeli militarism. That said, for many years to come, Egypt will be embroiled primarily in domestic affairs. This includes the construction of a new political system, fixing the economy, addressing inequalities, combating corruption, dealing with sectarian tensions, and more. Moreover, even a democratic Egypt will lack the clout to impose a resolution and Egyptians have learnt through long and bitter experience that belligerence leads nowhere.

So, it would perhaps be a mistake for those Israelis and Palestinians who pine for peace to await an Egyptian saviour. Instead, they should look to the more intangible support that Egypt can provide, namely that they need not await a foreign messiah because their true saviour is within themselves.

Egypt has provided Palestinians and Israelis, long cynical and disillusioned that the powers that be can bring about any meaningful change in their situation, with a dose of much-needed hope and inspiration, especially in their own latent powers as people.

People power: the missing link

I am a strong believer in the idea that ‘people power’ is the missing link in the quest for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The vast majority of the discourse relating to the conflict focuses on a top-down solutions in which an international broker or brokers bring the two parties together to the negotiating table and lean on them until they kiss and make up and agree to live together happily ever after.

The trouble with this model is that it overlooks the fact that no external mediator enjoys the kind of clout or willpower necessary to push through a resolution. In addition, it ignores the glaring disparities in power between Israelis and Palestinians. It also turns a blind eye to the fractured and divided political landscape on both sides which makes reaching a consensus over the painful realities both sides must accept for the sake of peace a task of Herculean proportions.

This is particularly the case given the decades-long mutual distrust and loathing, which renders the necessary groundswell of popular opinion required to achieve peace impossible to attain.

I believe that it is time to follow a new track in which ordinary people lead the process and not just act as passive by-standers. Palestinians and Israelis need to awaken to their own power and unlock their dormant potential to steer their own destiny towards peace and reconciliation. And the best way to do this, as the ‘Arab Awakening’ is illustrating, is through mass, peaceful joint activism.

For many years, a minority of activists on both sides have joined forces and found common cause in opposing the occupation, settlement building, the separation wall and home demolitions and evictions. This needs to be stepped up and activists must find creative ways of inspiring the mainstream – they need to make their movement go viral.

Being the dreamer that I am, I cannot shake the vision in my head of joint Israeli-Palestinian activism infecting the masses, and the current housing protests could be a good foundation upon which to build such a movement.

In my vision, squares in cities across Israel and Palestine would be filled with people rallying around a single goal: “The people demand an end to the occupation.” Protesters on both sides would also pitch tents at checkpoints to demand their removal and, who knows, perhaps one day have their own Berlin wall moment.

Likewise, ordinary Egyptians need to overcome their own apathy and passivity and help facilitate and mediate such a ‘people’s peace’. For the sake of peace and the future, Egyptians need to cast aside their ideological opposition to dealing with Israelis and act in active and open solidarity with the Israeli-Palestinian peace movement and export the spirit of their revolution to neighours who are in desperate need of it.

This article is based on a talk given by Khaled Diab at a conference on the future of Egypt organised by the International Peace Studies Centre which took place in London on Saturday 13 August 2011.
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  • Izak Friend

    Egypt is not a disinterested party, radiating benign good will in the direction of Israel/Palestine, any more than the US is vis-a-vis Mexico. Egypt has been meddling in I/P with wholly destructive outcomes, since the very beginning of this conflict.

    Without Egyptian meddling,the 1948 war would’ve been shorter, smaller, and less embittered. Without Egyptian meddling, there would’ve been no wars in 1952, 1967, and 1973. Without Egyptian recruitment of ex-Nazi propgandists, and Egyptian dissemination of eliminationist antisemitism throughout the Arab and Islamic media, this conflict would not have acquired the us-or-them quality that it has. It is this last which, IMO, makes an Israeli-Arab peace improbable for the foreseeable future.

    The USA doesn’t have the capacity to “fix” Mexico, given the tortured history between the two countries. Egypt can’t “fix” I/P. Do everyone a favor, and butt out.

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