February 06, 2012 Edition 5 Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire
The Arab revolutions and the peace process
The goal is democratization  - Ghassan Khatib
Israel's response to developments in the Arab world is difficult to understand.

Abbas juggles initiatives while Israel takes none  - Yossi Alpher
Quartet pressures represent the most conservative approach of all: more of the same

We must catch up  - an interview with Yusef Harb
The Arab spring is not having a great internal impact.

The real domino effect  - Zvi Bar'el
It is the Palestinians who may reap the major benefits of the Arab spring.

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The goal is democratization
 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.-Published 6/2/2012 ©

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications and director of the Government Media Center. This article represents his personal views.

Abbas juggles initiatives while Israel takes none
 Yossi Alpher
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process was dead well before the Arab revolutionary wave began a little over a year ago. Nor does it appear likely that the Arab revolutions, in and of themselves, will catalyze its revival. Still, they have affected the peace process in a number of significant, albeit still evolving ways.

First and foremost is the ongoing metamorphosis of Hamas--a byproduct of the legitimization of political Islam in Egypt and Tunisia and the destabilization of Hamas' political base in Syria. With active Egyptian support, Hamas has moderated its tone toward Israel and entered into a reconciliation process with Fateh. Hamas, with its abortive 2006 Palestinian Authority electoral victory, can also claim to have pioneered the emergence of political Islam on the Arab revolutionary scene.

Egypt, on the other hand, under the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and preoccupied with issues of public order, has backed out of active sponsorship of the peace process. Jordan has for the moment stepped in to fill the void. Paradoxically, the decision by King Abdullah II to offer his patronage to Israeli-Palestinian pre-negotiations is seemingly equally motivated by concerns over Islamist pressures and the stability of the regime. But in the Jordanian case, the "ancien regime" is still in place and both the government led by Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in Palestine have attended the Amman talks largely out of concern to help stabilize it.

Rounding out the picture of regional revolutionary influence on the process is Syria. Here we encounter a unique "push-pull" effect. If Egypt is "pulling" Hamas in, Syria, with its embattled regime and its Iranian orientation, is "pushing" it out. Like virtually everything else in the Arab revolutionary wave, the effect on Hamas' political orientation and ideology is still a work-in-progress.

Perhaps most fascinating and perplexing of all is the effect of these developments on the political maneuvering of PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. He was aware well before January 2011, when the revolutions began, that the gaps in final status positions between the PLO and Israel were unbridgeable and that Washington had no realistic vision for altering the situation. The revolutionary wave distanced Egypt from sponsoring the process but seemingly moderated Hamas into tolerating it. Now Abbas finds himself struggling to reconcile these developments and juggling three balls at once: his own "revolutionary" appeal to the United Nations for state recognition, the Fateh-Hamas reconciliation process, and Quartet and Arab pressures to return to some sort of peace process.

Apropos Quartet pressures--on both the PLO and Israel--they represent the most conservative approach of all to the revolutionary developments in the Arab world and their effect on the peace process: more of the same. If the parties can't discuss territory and security, let them exchange confidence-building measures. There is no room for Hamas, and none for the PLO's UN initiative. At the heart of this approach is the Obama administration's refusal to take on any new risks in an election year.

That leaves Israel. As it contemplates the revolutionary Arab world around it, it reacts cautiously but constructively only to clear signs of immediate danger: Hashemite instability, problems in Sinai, and threats in Egypt to cancel the peace treaty. It displays a healthy reticence to interfere in any way directly in the surrounding turmoil, for example in Syria. But it sees no reason to apply itself to a more dynamic peace process. It refuses to read into the revolutions the need to display genuine progress on the Palestinian front, if only to improve its options and its maneuverability in the Arab world.

The Netanyahu government as currently constituted would be incapable of doing so even if it wished to. Hence it is comfortable to cite the Arab revolutions as a good reason to "keep its powder dry" on the Palestinian front. Nor does the government of Israel appear to have asked itself how its growing preoccupation with Iran's nuclear threat might conceivably interact with the "Arab spring" in the absence of a peace process.

Some members of Netanyahu's coalition seem very comfortable with the international and regional isolation these policies have imposed. Israel is liable to pay a heavy price for them.-Published 6/2/2012 ©

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

We must catch up
an interview with  Yusef Harb
bitterlemons: How do you think the "Arab spring" is affecting the average Palestinian?

Harb: The Arab spring has its causes and is a natural response to the political and social regimes that have been in power in the Arab states for the last 50 years. Palestinian society, however, has a clear distinction from the regimes in the Arab world. It is led by a new, modern regime, one created in 1994 through the Oslo agreement and one that protects the capabilities of the Palestinian people.

The single conflict that exists today between the Palestinian people and its leadership, the Palestinian Authority, is that [Israel's] occupation has not ended. As such, the Arab spring is not having a great internal impact, although it will have a broad impact on the wider Palestinian issue because each change in the Arab world generates pressure for more positive results on the Palestinian issue. As these regimes become increasingly proximate and advanced in their political positions vis-a-vis Palestinians, especially in their dealings with the Israeli occupation, they will increasingly create real pressure.

Socially, there is some limited impact. In the community and economically, we sense in recent days that there is some popular Palestinian activity in [protesting] rising prices and tax hikes. But at this time, this movement is not at the level of the Arab spring.

bitterlemons: In this period, one sometimes hear Palestinians saying that everything in the Arab states is now chaos, implying that it would have been better had the Arab spring not occurred. Where do you think this sentiment comes from?

Harb: In my opinion, the Arab spring is a natural response to political, social and economic regimes that have not brought positive results. It was born in natural conditions and with time it has developed. It has not been guided by one rule; there have been influences. Any revolution or intifada or public movement would also have its negative sides. But I believe that this is a real, natural and healthy occurrence in the quest for stability and when there has been one regime and one person in control.

Why is this going on for one, two and even three years? The next 10 years will make clear if the Arab spring creates true democratic regimes with advancements in economic and social policies that give the Arab citizen a role and decision-making power. It is the right of each Arab citizen to state his or her opinion in front of every Arab leader, and every Arab leader should be able to make room for criticism and analysis. But these results will likely not be felt for years. Democracy is a state that is monitored by the culture of the society, and this will depend on the regimes that are created in this period--in Egypt, in Tunis, and soon in Yemen.

bitterlemons: Do you see changes within the Palestinian leadership, in particular Fateh, which you are a part of?

Harb: Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership and political factions are not benefitting a great deal from the atmosphere of the Arab spring. The previous presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization and its broad field of representation seems to have blunted the sharp effects of the Arab spring. The factional regime that we have here persists and the factions have an impact on the daily life of the community and are a source of stability.

But the factions, Fateh and Hamas and others, must catch up to the changes that are happening in every Arab citizens' life and benefit from investing in the lives of the youth. These young people can benefit from exchanges with the Arab world. This next generation has more ability than previous generations, and will be more politicized and engaged in economic and social life.

bitterlemons: What do you think about the meeting that just took place between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal? Are you optimistic about reconciliation between the factions?

Harb: It seems that the reconciliation process is serious. The meeting between them was clearly serious and not just window-dressing. In hours or days, we will see serious steps forward in reconciliation on the ground.-Published 6/2/2012 ©

Yusef Harb heads the union of youth centers in the West Bank.

The real domino effect
 Zvi Bar'el
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been full of surprises in the last couple of months. First came his announcement that the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be given a chance. Then came the reconciliation agreement between Fateh and Hamas, which was followed by Meshaal's confirmation that he would not run for another term as director of Hamas' political bureau. And last but not least, he and his family left Syria and now he is looking for a new shelter for Hamas' headquarters.

While the so-called "Arab spring" has passed through the Palestinian territories without leaving a tangible mark, one cannot ignore its effect on the Palestinian political infrastructure.

The major outcome of the crisis in Syria--apart, of course, from its impact on Syria--is Hamas' perception of its new status there and the implications this could have on its relations with Iran. Before the events in Syria, Hamas was still able to maneuver between its Arab affiliation and its Iranian sponsor. Now, it looks as if Hamas is obliged to adopt a single course of action and realign itself with the Arab coalition against Syria and Iran. Meshaal's historic visit to Jordan, accompanied by the Qatari crown prince, attests to this new direction. While Hamas' debacle has thrown into Jordan's lap a new opportunity to be involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, far more important are the implications for the parties involved.

Despite some criticism of the renewal of the Palestinian-Israeli dialogue hosted by King Abdullah of Jordan, Meshaal and his colleagues are proceeding with Palestinian reconciliation efforts. Indeed, it appears that even Israel has realized the futility of its objection to reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions and has placed no preconditions on its willingness to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Yet, while Meshaal has declared that Hamas will abandon military struggle against Israel, or rather postpone it to a "later date", thus complying with one of the Quartet's conditions, he is still avoiding any recognition of Israel and refusing to abide by the agreements that were signed between Israel and the PLO.

This is where developments in Egypt may create a complex dilemma for Hamas. While the Muslim Brothers, who have become the largest party in the Egyptian parliament and will run the government, are emphasizing their adherence to the Camp David accords, hence their recognition of Israel, Hamas may find itself at odds with such declarations. While it remains to be seen what kind of foreign policy the Muslim Brothers will adopt, it is already clear that they wish to maintain good relations with the United States. It is also clear that the Egyptian military will adhere to its previous pro-American stance, thus forcing the government to toe the same line. Needless to say, this policy implies "normal" relations with Israel, even if the term "normal" will be redefined.

Could Hamas adopt a different policy and detach itself from that of the Muslim Brothers? Judging from its past decision to stick with Iran and Syria despite the Brothers' antagonistic position, it is obvious that Hamas--while ideologically seeing itself as part of the Muslim Brothers--can be independent of its parent organization when this fits its foreign or domestic policy requirements. Still, economic, social, and political pressures have already caused changes in its traditional position. Like the Brothers, Hamas might be willing to proceed with a dual course: letting the PLO conduct negotiations with Israel while avoiding recognition of Israel.

A different dilemma faces the Quartet, which finds itself entangled between a stubborn right-wing Israeli government and a PLO that sees the only solution in United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state.

So far, the Quartet has been able to keep the Security Council from granting recognition and to pressure the parties into meaningful negotiations. This position has leaned in part on what was considered an unbridgeable division between Gaza and the West Bank, between Hamas and Fateh. The formal pretext was that since the PLO did not represent Gaza, it could not claim that it represented the entire Palestinian state.

This pretext has been crumbling since the Palestinian reconciliation agreement was signed. And now that the Quartet deadline for reaching a negotiated agreement on the next stage of Israeli-Palestinian talks has passed, it looks like the UN will need to deal with a conflict that was once managed locally between Egypt, Israel, the United States and the Palestinians, with the Quartet relegated to the role of spectator.

A few months ago, when revolutionary movements in some Arab states had amazed the world's leadership with their courage and insistence on toppling dictatorial regimes, little if any attention was paid to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, when Egypt is struggling to maintain a modicum of law and order, Tunisia is trying to find its path between conflicting ideologies, and Syria is in shambles, it is the Palestinians who may reap the major benefits of the Arab spring.

However, for Hamas' change of mind and Palestinian reconciliation to become useful tools in the peace process, there is a need for a new approach by the members of the Quartet toward a "new" PLO that comprises Hamas and toward the idea of an independent Palestinian state. That is, if the international community decides to align itself with the real domino effect that was launched by the Arab spring.-Published 6/2/2012

Zvi Bar'el is analyst for Middle East affairs of Haaretz daily. His book, "When Cars Fell from Heaven"(in Hebrew) was published last year.