Reading Time: 7 minutes

By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh:

The Implications of the Arab Uprisings

The uprisings in the Arab World have created a new reality which affected regional calculations and influenced the international situation. Israel has found itself amidst an unusual storm of change and within an unexpected regional landscape. These changes have a direct impact on the Palestinian file and on the future of the Israeli presence in Palestine.

The former prime minister and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak has stated that Israel is “facing a political tsunami.” When the current PM Netanyahu depicted Israel as an oasis of interracial harmony in a region of strife, the Israeli President Peres commented that even if Israel were an oasis, the sea needs to calm down because it is the sea which affects the oasis and not the other way around. On another hand, Shaul Mofaz, head of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, asserted that “this is a new strategic reality that forces the State of Israel to conduct a strategic review on a national level,” while Minister Moshe Yaalon described the events as a historic earthquake.

Observers of the Israeli scene notice a state of anxiety and confusion on the political and security levels. In this sense, the Israeli analyst Emunah Alon attested that the situation in the Arab world has turned upside down, and so is the situation in Israel, since the ground that is shaking under the neighboring countries will shake under Israel as well. It’s enough to look at what is happening in the Middle East to understand that we understand nothing!! She further stressed that the era of Israeli superiority to the Arabs has come to an end.

On another level, many Israelis felt that their government was not reacting or dealing with the situation in a proper way. In this context, Haaretz said that Netanyahu’s government “prefers to turn its back to the world” and that its “policy is causing serious harm to Israel’s national interests and will only impede Israel’s integration into the new regional order that is taking shape.” It also stressed that the “shock waves in the Middle East actually obligate us to quickly rev up our strategic thinking… Israel should not wait until this new Arab and American policy develops into a steam-roller. It would do better, in contrast to its usual policy, to view the changes in the Middle East as an opportunity and to preemptively propose a diplomatic initiative.”

Dealing with the Palestinian File

Many Israelis who have talked about the changes in the Arab world focused on the need for more speed and openness in tackling the Palestinian file. They even stressed the need for providing political initiatives and concessions that expedite a peaceful settlement with Abu Mazen and the PLO leadership in Ramallah. This idea was stressed by many Israeli leaders including Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Shaul Mofaz and Benyamin Ben-Eliezer.

Many analysts agreed with the view posed by Ehud Barak suggesting that “there is an international movement to recognize a Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders,” which he considered also “an attempt to deligitimize Israel and push it into the same corner that apartheid South Africa once occupied.” Further, the analysts stressed that the current impasse inflicts serious and strategic damage on Israel which is now in a very bad position. The number of countries opposed to it is likely to increase. Hence, they called for the activation of the peace process and rebuilding confidence with the PA through a program which the Palestinians deem as beneficial. Otherwise, the state of impasse with the PA would lead to further tension in the region. For his part, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer stressed the need for pursuing a political measure which allows Israel to deal with the current situation; otherwise, it would find itself in a different world facing a fundamentalist regime.

However, what is interesting here is that most (or even all) of those voices who want to spur the peace process, especially decision makers, have not provided a serious vision that would be accepted by the most “moderate” Palestinians including Mahmud ‘Abbas and his aides in addition to the PA and PLO leadership. Still, those concerned about the peace process continue to talk about “incentives and temptations” for enhancing negotiations, yet without presenting any genuine solutions. In other words, they are still trying to “manage the problem” instead of “solving” it, and they have no consensus on the incentives to be offered to the Palestinians; such as stopping settlement building, removing some checkpoints, easing the siege or improving the Palestinian economy.

Some writings have mentioned that the remaining strategic partners in the region (after the collapse of the Egyptian regime) are the PA and Jordan which guarantee the WB and the east front. Consequently, they called for strengthening Israel’s relation with these two sides but warned against the complications of such relations especially in the light of the changes and challenges faced by each. There are also complications due to the disruption of the peace process and the Israeli frustration in addition to the calls of many Israelis to adopt the “Jordanian choice” and the “alternative homeland” to solve the Palestinian dilemma where such alternatives might exacerbate the relation with Jordan and the PA.

The Alternatives and the Potential Options

The enormous pressures on the Israelis do not necessarily result in one reaction. On one hand, there might be an inclination towards more isolation and aggression and a return to the “ghetto” and “fortress” mentality. These pressures might put the Israelis in a situation where they are more willing to compromise and provide strategic and tactical concessions. This has much to do with the balance of power on the ground, the assessment of risks and interests besides the international and regional landscapes.

Thus, the Israelis might deal with a number of options and tracks and compare them. These can be complementary rather than contradictory and it might be possible to choose two or more.  The most important alternatives and options are:

1. Temporary state: This alternative is based on the core of the Israeli policy which rests on crisis management rather than resolution and on postponing the decision on the final issues, especially Jerusalem and the refugees. At the same time, facts are established on the ground according to the Israeli will and vision. In addition, the Israeli policymakers would try through this alternative to circumvent the declaration of the Palestinian State which they might face in the UN next September.

Netanyahu’s plan which was disclosed on 7/3/2011 is based on the same idea where it calls for the recognition of a Palestinian State with temporary borders and interim long-term agreement coupled with negotiations regarding final status issues, releasing the detainees, removing military checkpoints, keeping Israeli forces in Jordan Valley without actual Israeli sovereignty, freezing settlement building in the isolated settlements and expanding it in settlement blocs and in the eastern part of Jerusalem.

The problem with this track is that it has been rejected by the Palestinians as it might be a de facto final status solution. Further, it is perceived as an Israeli maneuver to evade the final outcome of the peace process. Thus, some Israeli political figures have recognized the ineffectiveness of such alternative where the former minister Yossi Sarid considered Netanyahu’s initiative a stillborn.

2. Unilateral withdrawal: This scenario is based on the program formerly adopted by ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and executed in the GS in fall 2005 in the hope to apply it in the WB at later stage.

This alternative is characterized by Israel’s abandonment of its obligations towards the Palestinians and its intention to withdraw from minimum land while abandoning the burden of the largest number of residents in the WB (excluding the eastern part of Jerusalem). Israel will make this alternative seem as a withdrawal from the occupied territories while the remaining issues are mere border problems between two neighboring countries. At the same time, it will retain Jerusalem and the territories behind the separation wall besides the settlement blocs. This option was posed again with the absence of any chances for concluding a peace settlement with the Palestinians in order to impose a new reality which seems to be a gain for the Palestinians and a sacrifice on the Israeli side. The reason the Israelis are hesitant about this scenario is that it might lead to the control of Hamas or resistance trends on the territories evacuated by Israel.

3. Achieving a real framework for peace settlement: This option is based on the idea that time is not in Israel’s favor. It will neither find better conditions nor better leaders to achieve a peace settlement. The future price will be definitely higher than the present one.

The achievement of a real framework accepted by the current PLO leadership and the PA in Ramallah is based on the 2003 Geneva initiative. It was launched by Palestinians close to the PA and Fatah and Israelis from Labor Party, Meretz and the Israeli left. This initiative is summarized in the establishment of a Palestinian State in the GS and WB with a limited land exchange which allows Israel to keep the settlement blocs. The Palestinians will have no right of return to the territories occupied in 1948. In addition, there will be special arrangements for Jerusalem based on Palestinian sovereignty on the Arab neighborhoods and Israeli sovereignty on the Jewish sites and neighborhoods.

This option seems unlikely. On one hand the Israeli left is weak and on the other the Israeli right and the religious movements are on the rise. In addition, the US is not willing to exercise real pressure on Israel. As for the Palestinians, they still refuse to concede the right of return besides they have other objections to the initiative.

4. Activating the Judaization projects: This track aims at stepping up the measures for the Judaization of several areas, in order to establish “facts on the ground” before the final status talks, and before the international community steps up its pressure. This course demands a conclusive decision on the Jewish and Israeli identity of Jerusalem and Judaization of the areas behind the Separation Wall. It might reach its peak with the control of al-Aqsa Mosque.

In the midst of the current Arab and Palestinian circumstances, this track might achieve temporary success. However, this course will induce the Palestinian people to pursue the resistance option, put an end to the peace process and create a more hostile environment towards Israel. The changes in the Arab world would lead also to fueling the conflict against Israel.

5. Preemptive or preventive strikes: Some Israeli calls have demanded the launching of military strikes against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria (before the recent developments there). The head of Kadima Party, Tzipi Livni, has called for the destruction of Hamas in Gaza before the Arab landscape changes. At the same time she called for restarting negotiations with Abbas “before it is too late.” In addition, chiefs of the Israeli intelligence asserted that it is impossible to suppress the calls supporting the Palestinians and Jerusalem in the Arab demonstrations without painful military strikes against Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria. These strikes would change the strategic environment, urging Egypt to confirm its commitment to peace and preventing the collapse of the PA.

The proponents of this track try to stress that, amidst the enormous changes, Israel is still the major player in the region. It can impose the rules of the game and it would not allow a disruption of the balance of power for the favor of the resistance trends and those opposed to Israel. In addition, Israel tries to anticipate developments to support its partners in the peace process. It wants to remind everyone of the enormous prices to be paid by any regime that opposes the Israeli-American will.

Regardless of its choices and no matter to what extent it “thinks and plots,” the Israeli side is definitely heading towards a crisis sooner or later. Any change in the balance of power would not only be reflected on the size of the areas it occupies but also on its future and existence.

The original Arabic article appeared on Al Jazeera net on 27/4/2011

Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 4/5/2011