By Ghassan Khatib
The relationship between the ongoing uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process is a convoluted mix of cause and effect. While Israelis tend to argue that recent developments in the Arab world justify the stagnation in the peace process (because the Arab revolutions “prove” constant instability in the neighborhood, Arab fickleness or fearsome radicalization), Arabs and Palestinians make the case that one of the factors contributing to regional foment and revolutions is frustration with the decades-long Israeli occupation and failure of the peace process.
Frankly, Israel’s response to the developments in the Arab world is difficult to understand. The most obvious trend in these events is the effort to replace non-democratic regimes with regimes backed by the public. One of the most immediate outcomes has been and will be free and democratic elections. In Tunisia and in Egypt, elections have accompanied a transformation towards democratization and transparent leadership. Israel, which likes to portray itself as the “only democracy in the region”, should be celebrating the new applications for membership in this club.
Likewise, Israel’s fear of rising Islamists is hard to swallow, when every sign is that democracy in Israel is leading it towards right-wing religious extremism. It might be useful here to remind ourselves that the parties that took over in most of Europe after World War II were defined by a right-wing Christian ethos, and most of the parties that rose to power after the transformation of Central and Eastern Europe were also religious. All of us need to support these Arab revolutions in the difficult process of building a framework for democracy and institutions that allow for the smooth and regular transfer of power.
Israel’s fears are overly dramatic. The best way to understand the effect of the Arab spring on the conflict and on Israel is that the peace agreements that were reached between Israel and some Arab regimes, especially Egypt, were not popular at all. They were possible when they were signed mainly because there was no democracy at work in those countries. This does not, on the other hand, mean that the majority of the Arabs are not interested in peace with Israel. Rather, the Arab public that has recently found its voice is not happy with peaceful arrangements that neglect the fact of the ongoing Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Therefore, in the coming era, new Arab regimes will try to maintain their commitment to peace with Israel, while connecting this with the need to reach a peaceful solution that will end the injustice of the occupation.
One positive effect of the Arab spring and of the growing strength of the Islamist parties is their influence on the positions and behavior of Hamas. Some Hamas leaders, including the head of the movement, have said that they were inspired by the peaceful nature of the successful Tunisian revolution. Its example influenced Khaled Meshaal to move towards committing to non-violent struggle as an alternative to the movement’s tactic of armed resistance.
In conclusion, the Arab spring will have a positive impact on prospects for a just, peaceful settlement between Israel and Palestinians as long as it is leading to the democratization of the Arab world.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.