The changes in the Arab region represent one of the major transformations in the modern and contemporary Arab history. These changes strongly reflect the peoples’ determination to achieve their freedom and establish political regimes which represent their will and aspirations.
Should these changes attain their objectives and fulfill their aims, the developments in the region on the political, economic, social, cultural and military levels would have positive implications on the Palestinian cause. They would contribute over time to the creation of strategic spaces supportive of the Palestinian cause and probably lead to the disruption of the balance of power currently prevailing in the region, a disruption which the Israelis perceive as existential danger in the medium and long runs. In the short run, the situation might witness some Arab intransigence towards the peace settlement track, an inclination to ease or lift the Gaza siege, indifference towards the application of Camp David Accords and the Israel–Jordan Treaty of Peace in addition to the deterioration of normalization with Israel.
It remains important to note that the Israelis, together with the Americans and their allies, would not just watch the changes underway, but they will seek to protect their security and interests in the region. Thus, the change process might face scenarios which could lead to complete or partial success, and maybe to failure. On the other hand, the enemies would try to exploit the situation of instability to sow more ethnic and sectarian fragmentation in the region.
The General Scene
The uprisings and transformations in the Arab region represent one of the major historic events in the modern and contemporary history. These uprisings were not mere temporary protests that could be absorbed by the ruling regime. Nor did they take place in one single country. First, these uprisings witnessed enormous popular participation from the youths and non-politicized parties. In addition, they were peaceful and well organized demonstrations aiming at major political issues rather than narrow, factional demands. They also achieved impressive results in relatively short time. Thus, they changed the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and caused significant changes in Yemen and Libya (although they have taken a revolutionary military course in Libya due to the nature of the ruling regime there). Moreover, these uprisings forced many regimes to raise the ceiling of freedoms and present political concessions, such as in Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco and Algeria not to mention the reforms and social benefits in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. On another level, the masses were able to use new media and communication channels (the Internet, including Facebook and Twitter) which helped them overcome the regimes’ traditional methods. They also benefited from the effective and influential media coverage of satellite channels, particularly Al Jazeera.
The Arab citizen was able to break the barriers of fear and express his demands in a civilized way. The regimes, on the other hand, revealed their ugly face through the brutal and backward practices that enhanced the protests and widened their scope.
This assessment is only preliminary as it comes while we are still amidst the storm and the changes are still crystallizing as their repercussions interact in different ways. Hence, it is difficult to reach definitive conclusions in this sense. However, if these changes achieved a positive ending, it is clear that major repercussions affecting the Palestinian issue are likely to take place—a concern which causes anxiety and confusion on the Israeli side.
The Arab Approach
It is known that Israel derives much of its power and influence from the state of weakness and division in the Arab and Muslim world, especially in the surrounding region. The adoption of the peace settlement track on the Arab official level and dismissing the choice of a confrontation with Israel were not the result of belief in Israel’s right to exist on 78% of the Palestinian land. Rather, there was a sense of inability to defeat Israel and the Zionist project within the current balance of power. Consequently, a fragile fragmented Arab region represented a guarantee for the stability and continuation of the Israeli occupation and arrogance. In addition, the absence of democratic regimes that reflect the will of people gave way for the corrupt, authoritarian regimes to suppress their peoples. On the other hand, their decision making process subdued to external factors, primarily the American and Western satisfaction.
The change movements in the Arab world, should they achieve their goals (especially in Egypt), would open the way for significant influence on the Palestinian level. However, the most notable impacts would only be achieved in the medium and long terms. For the Arab regimes, which are hit or will be hit by change, will have to set their house in order, endeavor to awaken the elements of construction and try their best to avoid military confrontations or antagonism with external forces, including Israel and its allies. This might take many years to be achieved but in the end these regimes will be expressing the real will of their peoples and will thus reflect the nation’s honor and dignity. In other words, this would mean a change in political stances while avoiding premature confrontations.
Thus, in the short run we might witness:
1. Easing the Gaza Strip siege, opening Rafah crossing, allowing relief convoys to pass into the Gaza Strip, stopping the construction of the steel wall and overlooking the tunnels on the Egyptian borders.
2. An increased indifference towards the application of the Camp David Accords and the Israel–Jordan Treaty of Peace in addition to the deterioration of normalization with Israel on the political, economic, security and cultural levels. The agreements with Israel might be frozen practically without the need for their formal annulment.
3. A new approach to the Palestinian reconciliation file which allows more understanding of the views of the resistance trends, especially Hamas while seriously considering the reestablishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its reform on new grounds.
4. The intransigence of the Palestinian, as well as the Arab position, towards negotiations and towards the Arab Peace Initiative even if this would lead to bringing the peace settlement track to an end. Also, encouraging Palestinian alternative options, both directly and indirectly, including a popular Intifadah (uprising), civil and armed resistance and dissolving the Palestinian Authority (PA)…
5. Undermining or ending the Israeli and American influence on Arab decision making. Thus, prioritizing the national and Islamic interests over the external pressures which are inconsistent with these interests.
On the medium and long term we might witness:
1. Opening the way to the Arab–Islamic revival which might lead to major political, social, economic, and even military changes. These would change the balance of power in the region in a way that drastically impacts the future of the Zionist project in the region.
2. The formation of a strategic official and popular environment in the region surrounding Israel which would be more supportive of the Palestinian resistance and more hostile to Israel.
3. Activation of the Arab and Islamic dimensions of the Palestinian issue where the conflict would not be restricted to the Palestinian circle.
Should the change affect the Arab stance on negotiations and the latter become intransigent, the Palestinian forces that adopt the negotiation track will be negatively influenced. In addition, if the siege was lifted or eased the PLO leadership and the PA in Ramallah will no more benefit from the pressures put on Isma‘il Haniyyah’s government. On other hand, the Palestinian resistance factions, particularly Hamas, will receive more acceptance as they would attract wider and stronger popular Arab support and hence become part of the “Arab legitimacy.” This would consequently provide a better horizon to set the Palestinian house in order including the PLO and the PA, in addition to defining the priorities of the Palestinian national project away from American and Israeli pressures. The presence of a more supportive Arab environment will benefit the Palestinians to reconsider the Oslo Accords, the experience of the PA, the form and nature of resistance in addition to benefiting from the economic, political, popular and perhaps military resources offered by this change.
The positive impact of change is most likely to appear in the Palestinian arena. It is also possible that a young generation will press not only to end the division but also to participate in the decision making process and in reformation.
The relation of three prominent Islamic countries with Israel has undergone profound transformation, namely Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Iran broke its ties with Israel in 1979, Turkey is on the way towards a disintegration of this relation and finally Egypt’s relations with Israel have started to witness decline. This transformation would drastically impact the strategic balances in the region and it might also redirect the policies of the Islamic world towards more dynamic and effective options regarding the Palestinian issue. Eventually, it would be possible to conclude that the Islamic trends which are supportive of the Palestinian rights are gaining more popularity and strength in major Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Nigeria.
The claims that the Arab uprisings are “Made in America” are not true. These uprisings have in fact expressed the authenticity of this nation and the peoples’ yearning for liberation and dignity and to express their humanity an awakening which defies injustice, tyranny and corruption. We are not supposed to give up to “inferiority complex” where we see that the will of change in our countries could not but be imported from abroad.
It is clear that the Americans have dealt with the uprisings with much confusion and they were surprised (just like other major powers) with the size of these uprisings, their strength and scope and their ability to speed up the process of change. However, the Americans (and some other powers yet to a lesser extent) have the capacity to try to direct the change in a way that serves their interests, where they have:
1. High dynamic in dealing with the events through decision making institutions and think tanks.
2. High ability to employ the enormous political, economic, military and media resources which they have.
Yet, popular awareness, together with the establishment of genuine, democratic regimes in the region, might help obstruct any negative employment of such uprisings.
After the American quagmire in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would not be easy for America to get itself involved in Egypt or the other countries in the region. It is likely that the US would pursue “soft power” to support Israel in addition to providing its ally with the necessary support and military superiority to achieve victory in any possible confrontation with its enemies. Further, America would try to prevent Islamists from assuming power and it might back some democratic, political and economic reforms while assuring, to the extent possible, the presence of forces which are allied with America or at least not hostile to it, and not willing to initiate or escalate hostilities with Israel. On another level, the US might try to activate the peaceful settlement track and pressure Israel to present some concessions that would tempt Mahmoud ‘Abbas and the PLO leadership in Ramallah to return to the settlement course.
A state of confusion and anxiety prevails on the Israeli political scene where the Israeli leaders conceive of the change in the region as a strategic and existential threat in case of development of spaces supportive of the resistance and the liberation project while adopting strategies that lead to the rupture of the current balance of power.
The Israeli society and its political forces witness growing radical religious and rightist trends in addition to the absence of any perception of a serious settlement plan agreed upon by the Israeli different parties. Moreover, the Israeli society is plagued with arrogance over military power which might result in misleading outcomes.
It is obvious that the dream of a peaceful settlement according to the Israeli conditions has faded away and Israel’s ability to impose the “rules of the game” in the region has plummeted while its dream of expansion has shrunk behind the Apartheid Wall. Besides, the sense of security has been shaken after the failure to suppress the forces of resistance in Gaza and south Lebanon and the prospects of an increased support for resistance in the region.
The Israelis might head in one of two directions:
1. An inclination towards more isolation to ensure self-preservation in line with the “ghetto” mentality and a deeper sense of hostile environment which calls for high military preparedness and the preservation of all gains of the occupation. This might mean an increase in judaization and settlement projects and the possibility of a preemptive attack to guarantee Israel’s security whether against Gaza, south Lebanon or against any Arab regime that might provide logistic support to resistance forces.
2. A more pragmatic inclination that tries to break the state of isolation and hostility through the emphasis on the settlement track and presenting concessions that seem “reasonable” in the American standards and acceptable to the PLO leadership as a “serious” indicator for fulfilling the Palestinian demands. It is also possible for Israel to seek an agreement that leads to the establishment of a temporary state in the Gaza Strip and around 60% of the West Bank. Israel might also choose to go back to the option of unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank.
On another hand, Israel and its allies might try to take advantage of the state of unrest caused by the uprisings and the conflicts between the peoples and the ruling regimes besides the differences arising from the multiplicity of the elements and components of the revolutions. The most serious aspects of this scenario are the possible attempts to stir ethnic and sectarian strife in a way that leads to more fragmentation and division in the Arab region. These inclinations are no longer a secret as they have been formerly posed by Bernard Lewis (who is an American Zionist Jewish thinker and a notable Orientalist) and the Israeli famous analyst Aluf Benn who discussed them in an article published in Haaretz on 25 March 2011.
The region seems to be heading in one of four directions:
1. The success of popular uprisings in achieving root changes in the Arab region thus paving the way for Islamic and national forces to assume political leadership and works towards the establishment of an Arab-Islamic awakening which provides a strategic space for resistance and leads to a change in the balance of power in the region.
2. Partial success of the uprisings leading to the improvement of the political and economic conditions in the region without being preoccupied with the conflict with Israel or changing the balance of power and without allowing the growth of resistance forces to the extent that might lead the region to military confrontation with Israel.
3. The failure of the uprisings in achieving their objectives and the ability of the corrupt, authoritarian regimes to re-produce themselves in different appearance.
4. The occurrence of adverse effects that not only lead to the failure of the uprisings in achieving their objectives but also to the success of the anti-revolution forces (with direct and indirect Israeli and Western support) in fueling sectarian and ethnic conflicts in a way that leads to chaos and the division of the current states into new entities which are weaker and more dependent on the Israelis and the Americans. This outcome would be used to confirm the claims coming from the West that the peoples in the Arab region do not understand democracy and are not worthy of it while Israel is the “only legitimate representative” of democracy (as accepted by the West) in the region!
It is most likely that the strongest scenarios are the first two possibilities; however, none of the four scenarios should be excluded since Israel and its allies would not allow a smooth and calm transformation in the region which might lead to the establishment of entities hostile to Israel. Thus, they will not save any “soft” and even hard method to derail these uprisings from their real track so they end up in meaningless outcome or adverse effects that would serve the Zionist project in the long run.
1. Enhancing peaceful, organized demonstrations in a way that leads to achieving the aspirations of the peoples in the region including democracy and cultural development, and the determination that the change process must achieve all its objectives while avoiding violence and blood shedding.
2. Ensuring that the will of change does not express the orientations of a specific party, group or faction but rather the whole society with its different sects, classes and ethnicities.
3. Caution against being dragged into ethnic and civil conflicts and preventing such conflicts since they are the worst tools which ruin victories and cause setbacks.
4. Making Palestine the title for the unity of the nation and sparing the Palestinians internal conflicts and problems that might occur in the Arab countries.
5. The quick alleviation of the Gaza siege, supporting the Palestinian reconciliation in addition to reorganizing the Palestinian house in accordance with a comprehensive national agenda.
6. Benefitting from the energies of the Arab and Palestinian youths and involving them extensively in the political, economic, social and popular arenas.
Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh wrote the original text which was based on a panel discussion that was held at al-Zaytouna Centre.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 12/4/2011