On Thursday 19/1/2012, Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations held a panel discussion under the title “The Palestinian Issue 2012 in Light of the Uprisings and Changes in the Arab World,” in Crowne Plaza Hotel in Beirut. The participants were a group of distinguished researchers, experts and specialists in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue, in addition to representatives of the most prominent Palestinian political forces, as well as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Egypt.
The panel discussion was divided into three sessions, and it sought to explore the expected impact of the uprisings and changes taking place in the Arab world on the Palestinian issue during 2012, as well as to evaluate their impact during 2011.
Commenting on the preparations for this event, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, the general manager of al-Zaytouna Centre, pointed out that the organizers made sure that this panel discussion be an arena for constructive academic debate, effective in the decision-making process related to the Palestinian issue. This would be realized through the choice of the panel discussion’s subject and themes, and the names of those taking part in it. Thus a choice group of academics, researchers, specialists in the Palestinian issue of all inclinations were invited, in addition to personalities that have influence on the Palestinian decision-making and are representatives of the various spectra in the Palestinian arena. A representative of the political movement that won the recent elections in Egypt was also invited, in recognition of Egypt’s weight and influence on the course of the Palestinian issue and that of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole.
The Opening and the First Session
At first, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh delivered the opening speech, welcoming the participants and reviewing the main points to be addressed in the panel discussion’s program. He noted that the year 2011 was a year of changes and Arab uprisings. It was a historic year in which the Arab person rose to impose his will. He reminded that the uprisings had three levels: the human, the land (the strategic space), and the political system. Dr. Saleh emphasized that the road is not furnished with a red carpet; then he spoke about the Arab Spring’s possible scenarios. Saleh mentioned that al-Zaytouna Centre—having ended its seventh year and earned a major and leading position in the studies related to the Palestinian issue—considers itself a cover for all with their diverse and differing opinions, and a gathering place for everything that can push the Palestinian issue forward.
Dr. Hussein Abu al-Naml moderated the first session, which discussed the reflection of the changes in the Arab World on the Palestinian internal situation. The speakers in this session were: Dr. Muhammad Shtayyeh, a member of Fatah’s Central Committee; Dr. Musa Abu Marzuq, deputy chief of Hamas political bureau; and Dr. Mahir al-Tahir, member of the Political Bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and leader of its branch outside Palestine.
Dr. Muhammad Shtayyeh started the session by pointing out that the effects of the events in the Arab region will extend for years to come. He said that there are three forces and strategies battling to control the region. These are Israel, Turkey and Iran. He added that the Arab world has shifted from the receiving phase to the advancement phase, in the presence of a major international crisis. Shtayyeh mentioned that the Palestinian Authority (PA) tried to draw a new strategy aimed at breaking the fait accompli policy imposed by Israel by having the Palestinian state join the UN and its institutions, which he considered to be an abandonment of the negotiating table. Shtayyeh ruled out the possibility of dissolving the PA, and stressed that the two-state solution is the one best suited to the two parties of the conflict. As for the impact of the uprisings on the Palestinian issue, Shtayyeh asserted that they will be supportive of it. He noted the launch of the Palestinian reconciliation in the direction of uniting Palestinian institutions within the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO); although there are some obstacles in the way. He stressed that the Palestinian strategy should turn the occupation from a winning one to a costly one. He predicted the decline of the American role and hoped that the Arab Spring would not get tamed so it becomes a supportive tool of the Palestinian issue and not a pressure tool against it.
For his part, Dr. Musa Abu Marzuq pointed out in his paper that the events of 2011 have a strategic effect on the regional and international levels as to the changes in the region and the restructuring of the active political powers, and how all of this reflects on the Palestinian issue with all its components. He stressed that the rise of the Islamic movement was not a passing chance for these great popular revolutions that have no leadership. In fact, the Islamic movement was present in all the most important political power spots; it was the principle and the most prominent opposition in all countries. With regard to the effect of these revolutions on the Palestinian problem, Abu Marzuq believes that they have caused the activation of the Palestinian reconciliation and the prisoner exchange deal files. They were also the spearhead of a movement toward a comprehensive authority for the Palestinian political process in favor of a national agenda. He drew attention to the fact that the Islamic movement in Palestine has begun to feel that an additional depth in its favor has begun forming, which gives Hamas an additional strategic space in the region. Abu Marzuq stressed that these revolutions are the beginning of the formation of a new but not well-defined axis; pointing out that Israel’s security situation has become worrisome, its future questionable, and its legitimacy in danger.
As for Dr. Mahir al-Tahir, he stressed that the world is witnessing numerous profound transformations and changes, on the political, economic, cultural and technological levels. He pointed out that this Arab popular movement plays an important strategic role that affects the Palestinian scene, currently and in the future. However, he considered that the impact of these global changes on the Palestinian issue is subject to the determinants of the US position. He noted that the wide and deep structural changes in the Israel will have direct effects on many aspects of the Palestinian scene. Regarding the Palestinian reconciliation file, al-Tahir expected that it will witness in 2012 states of ebb and flow, due to the presence of numerous internal and external obstacles that prevent an outright ending of the schism. He regarded it as unlikely that elections will be held for the National Council, the Legislative Council, or the presidency. As for the matter of a peaceful settlement for the Palestinian issue, al-Tahir thought it likely that there will be no return to the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. He thought that there is little hope for a political solution to the Palestinian issue, and emphasized the failure of the peace process.
The Second Session
The second session, which was moderated by the member of parliament, Dr. ‘Imad al-Hout, addressed the stances of the Arab and Muslim Worlds vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, in light of the recent developments in the Arab world. The speakers in this session were Dr. Yehya Ahmad Hussein – a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood Movement in Egypt; Mr. Muhammad al-Rashid, deputy editor of the Kuwaiti magazine, al-Mujtama’; and Prof. Dr. Talal Atrissi, Professor of Educational Sociology at the Lebanese University and an expert on the Islamic world’s affairs.
At the beginning of the session, Dr. Yehya Ahmad Hussein said that the Egyptian people revolted after their youth had despaired of their awakening. Their victory came sudden and unexpected. He emphasized that the outcome of the January 25 revolution placed a burden on those “in charge of serving the people” that requires utilizing all the forces, making all the necessary efforts to deal with priorities, and removing the effects of the former regime’s policies. In his paper, Hussein spoke about the revolution’s advantages and disadvantages for the Egyptian people, and about the horizons of the desired change in Egypt. With respect to the impact of the revolution on the Palestinian issue, he stressed that the Egyptian people, Muslims and Christians alike, are honored to stand firmly behind the Palestinian people. He noted that the Muslim Brotherhood Movement deals with the issue of Palestine as that of a free Arab Muslim people; part of them were expelled from their land and the others are living under siege in their own country by their enemies. As for the position of the Brotherhood and their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) on the issue of the treaties and relations with Israel, Hussein pointed out that wisdom requires taking into account the overall circumstances by respecting them for the time being, until the time comes for reviewing them and amending their terms. As a consequence of the Egyptian revolution, Hussein expected that the Egyptian people will increase their support of the Palestinian people until the end of the occupation.
In turn, Mr. Muhammad al-Rashid, held the view that, in the course of their new revolutions, the Arab peoples are looking for radical change in the nature of the Arab political system, and to the formulation of a new social contract that promises them justice, equality, freedoms, democracy and social peace. On the other hand, there are hopes that the Arab revolutions will be a strong addition in favor of the Palestinian issue and a change in the balance of powers in this region in favor of regaining Palestinian rights. Al-Rashid indicated that the revolutions have brought down the “forces of the new Middle East region” and that a new axis will be formed in the Arab region, which will side with the Arab right in Palestine, support the resistance, and weaken the strategic alliance between the US and Israel on the one hand and some Arab regimes on the other. He drew attention to the fact that the new Arab system will compete with the Iranian plan, and will favor the idea of forming a developmental strategic Islamic Arab axis based on a state of rapprochement with Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia.
For his part, Prof. Dr. Talal ‘Atrissi said that, during 2011, the Palestinian issue did not receive the attention it deserves, as the priorities of the world and the region’s peoples were focused on one issue: the uprisings and the fall of presidents. Thus the peace settlement negotiations stopped, the Palestinian reconciliation dossier was suspended, also the dossier of the prisoner exchange deal. However, the last few months of 2011 witnessed a return of the international interest in Palestine. As for Iran’s role in the struggle with Israel, he indicated that Iran linked the events in the Arab region to the struggle with Israel and the confrontation with the US. It considered what is happening an Islamic awakening, and expected that the uprisings will lead to Israel’s collapse.
Regarding Turkey’s stance, ‘Atrissi pointed out that Turkey dealt with the uprisings from its position of supporting democracy; it did not make the connection between these uprisings and their potential impact on the conflict with Israel; for Turkey wants Hamas and all Islamists to emulate its example. ‘Atrissi emphasized some of the revolutions’ outcomes; Israel will remain an unacceptable entity; the Palestinian resistance will gradually enjoy greater freedom in many Arab arenas; Palestine’s position and the policies of Islamic countries, in particular Turkey and Iran, vis-à-vis Palestine will not undergo meaningful change in the coming year, meaning Turkey’s support of the strategy of negotiations and peace, and Iran’s support of resistance and confrontation with Israel.
The Third Session
The third and final session was moderated by former Minister Bechara Merhej. It discussed the Israeli scene and the international stances toward the Palestinian issue in light of the transformations taking place in the Arab world. The panelists in this session were: Mr. Majid ‘Azzam, director of the East Mediterranean Centre for Media Services and an expert on Israeli affairs; Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, and Prof. Dr. Majdi Hammad, President of the Lebanese International University and an expert on international affairs.
In the beginning, Dr. Majid ‘Azzam spoke about the Israeli stances toward the Arab revolutions; he pointed out that Israel reacted to the Arab spring with a mixture of arrogance, confusion, contradiction and, in some instances, realism; but without reaching the point of drawing out fundamental lessons. Thus, the Tunisian revolution did not gain much attention and was not much debated in Israel. However, the Israeli political and media interest in the Egyptian revolution was intense and focused. In its first stages, it defended Husni Mubarak, his person and his regime. Losing Mubarak meant losing the personal guard of three basic and central files, which are the conflict in Palestine, the general political scene in the region and abandoning the Egyptian role and even Egyptian interests, and finally the file of African refugees. ‘Azzam mentioned that the Libyan revolution did not lead to an intense debate in Israel, only general readings that placed it in the context of the Arab revolutions. Over the first three months of the Syrian revolution, Israel maintained its silence; then since summer, the predictions there that the Syrian regime will fall within a year or a year and a half began. At the end of his talk, ‘Azzam expected that the official dealing of Netanyahu and his government with the revolutions and their impact on the Palestinian issue will remain confined to the tactical aspect.
In the working paper presented by Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, he mentioned that in the beginnings of the Arab revolutions and uprisings in search of change, the US passed through a state of much anxiety and confusion at the prospect of losing its traditional allies and the likelihood of a change in the region’s map, in a manner contrary to its strategies and interests. However, it sought to adapt fast to the state of change and tried to ride its wave and steer it to paths that serve its interests, or at least lessen its potential damage as much as possible. He considered that if the change movements have no interest in hastening the confrontation with America, America in its turn has no present interest in antagonizing these movements and directing its powers against them.
On the other hand, Saleh warned against the dangers of an Israeli-American adoption of the plans to fragmentize the region on sectarian or ethnic bases; pointing out at the same time that, during the last few years, America suffered from a range of problems and difficulties that impaired its ability to influence the course of international politics. He said that maybe these influences will not appear shortly and directly, but they may have important implications in the medium term.
Saleh also mentioned that the year 2011 reflected the American continuing policy of support to Israel as well as a relaxation of the pressure in the direction of the peace settlement; for the American decision-making institutions continue to speak about a firm strategic relationship with Israel. He added that the American administration tried to separate between the changes in the Arab world and their potential positive implications for the Palestinian situation. He emphasized that the US will continue this attempt in 2012; as it will try to prevent the regimes from taking any measures that would escalate the hostility toward Israel. He also predicted that the course of American political initiatives related to Palestine will weaken and break down due to the American presidential elections.
For his part, Prof. Dr. Majdi Hammad said that 2011 witnessed the emergence of a number of most important developments, and unexpectedly. These developments are supposed to have a central role in directing events and changes in the Arabic region. He said that the “Palestine Spring” has begun just like the Arab Spring; and that “Israel’s Autumn” has also begun, among signs and information whose importance should not be underestimated. He added that the issue of Israel before the Arab uprisings and revolts is other than it is after them. He indicated that Palestine is the gate of regional influence, and that Israel is facing a historic shift in the regional balance of power, because of the ascendancy of regional powers, Iran and Turkey in particular. Hammad pointed out that the aim of the American plan to admit Israel to NATO is to pressure Arab countries. On the other hand, Hammad mentioned that the Palestinian leadership placed the European Union in a difficult position when it decided to submit a bid for Palestine’s full membership in the UN. He also pointed out that Russia’s role vis-à-vis the Syrian revolution illustrates the limits, the abilities and the potentials of that role; and that understanding and analyzing China’s positions and directions lie in the fact that it has established special relationships at once with Israel and Iran. He indicated that we should view developments in the Palestinian issue from the perspective of the international situation, in light of these global strategic directions, taking into account their prospects, while expecting a decline in America’s power, and the move of the crises center to the Arab Gulf region.
At the end of this panel discussion, Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh thanked the participants, noting the importance of what was discussed, and the evaluations and prospects for the course of the Palestinian issue, hoping that they will contribute to serving it and those working for it.
It should be mentioned that this panel discussion falls within the framework of a series of strategic evaluation seminars on the developments related to the Palestinian issue, held at the beginning of every year, in an attempt to anticipate the future. This panel discussion was held for the fifth consecutive year, in an environment of the Centre’s preparation of its annual Palestinian Strategic Report. For the ideas and the discussions presented in this session constitute supportive material for the Report, which is expected to be published by the end of next April.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 2/2/2012