"Things are not as they seem," warned two veteran analysts of Middle Eastern politics, Robert Malley and Hussein Agha, in a recent article for the New York Review of Books on the meaning of the Arab Spring. They are absolutely correct: the political convulsions across the Middle East during the last year resist comforting interpretations, particularly when it comes to Israel's position and status in the region.
Uncharacteristically for two of its most trenchant critics, Israel was complimented by Malley and Agha for its "judicious silence" in the face of the Arab world's revolutionary moment. Israel's silence, though, should not be mistaken for indifference.
Young Arab activists who overwhelmed Twitter with their anti-corruption, anti-authoritarian messaging may have launched the impulse for political change in the Arab world. However, the true beneficiaries will be—in the words of Malley and Agha—"more calculating and hard-nosed forces."
Foremost among these forces are the full range of Islamist groups and parties.
Whatever the doctrinal differences between these groups, they are as one in regarding the existence of a Jewish state in the region as an abomination.
That's why any sensible assessment of the current Palestinian campaign to secure international recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) must take, as its starting point, this grim regional reality.
For all the talk of progress, the Middle East's clock has now actually been turned back. Here are a few reasons why:
- Ever since its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Israel's military calculations have assumed conflict on two fronts: with the Hamas regime in Gaza, to the south, and, to the north, with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
- Now, Israel has to reckon with the possible expansion of its southern front. Last month's vicious riot at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo underlined that the 1979 peace treaty was less a treaty between states, and more a treaty between Israel and an Egyptian regime that is no more.
- Even if war with Egypt is not imminent, neither is it a possibility that can be discounted indefinitely. When you factor in the likelihood that such a conflict would envelop the Palestinians in the West Bank and drag in Jordan, the strategic environment is painfully reminiscent of the eve of the Yom Kippur War of 1973.
- Except that today's situation may actually be worse.In 1973, neither Turkey nor Iran was counted among Israel's foes; now, they are arguably the most dangerous of them all.
- Iran is the greater military threat, with its drive to obtain nuclear weapons, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and its backing for the bloodsoaked Assad regime in Syria. Turkey, though, is a greater political threat.
- Among the Arabs, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Islamist Prime Minister, is basking in the kind of adulation that has always eluded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran. Just as fortuitously, Erdogan is all too aware that the United States and Europe are terrified of losing their close relationship with Turkey.
- Both these factors have propelled Turkey's bid to reclaim the leadership of the Islamic world that it lost with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Understand this ambition and you understand why Erdogan is best served by increasing, and not reducing, his belligerence towards Israel.
Now put yourself in the shoes of the Palestinian Authority (expired-term) President, Mahmoud Abbas. In this environment, what incentive does he have to defy the mood of the region—not to mention his personal sensibilities—by accepting a Jewish state as a permanent, non-negotiable feature of the Middle East? As with Erdogan, belligerence makes political sense for Abbas, all the more so when you recall that his Hamas adversaries have lampooned him as a weak, compliant leader.
The UDI campaign has restored Abbas's flagging credibility. His rhetoric has skilfully linked this "Palestinian Spring" with the Arab Spring. Critically, Abbas also knows that the U.S. and Europe attitude toward Erdogan—that he's fundamentally a moderate who must be kept on board—applies to him too.
Abbas, however, is not a moderate. A moderate would seek substantial Israeli territorial concessions in return for genuine recognition of Israel's Jewish character, which would mean loudly and publicly abandoning the Palestinian demand to "return" refugees to territory under Israeli sovereignty. Instead, Abbas ignores these Israeli anxieties, secure in the knowledge that international policy will write off his rejectionism as the understandable frustration of a moderate spurned.
What, then, can Israel do? To start with, it should absorb the wisdom of Conor Cruise O'Brien—one of Ireland's esteemed men of letters and a great friend of Israel—who famously observed that "conflicts don't have solutions—they have outcomes."
With the Palestinian UDI campaign, Israel has arrived at another outcome, albeit one that acutely undermines the premises that have driven peace negotiations over the last twenty years. As Malley and Agha wrote of the Arab Spring, "things are not as they seem."
For we know now—if we didn't before—that moderation brings few political rewards. We know, too, that the Palestinian UDI campaign is designed to perpetuate, not nullify, the denial of Israel's moral and legal legitimacy.
Daunting as these realizations are, at least the blindfold has been lifted. For that, if nothing else, we should be thankful.