By 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.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons.org.