Osama Al-Sharif
Gulf News (Opinion)
September 12, 2011 - 12:00am

In a fast changing Arab world, Israel is yet to comprehend that it can no longer pursue a self-serving agenda of bullying neighbours, denying Palestinians their national rights and taking Washington’s blind support for granted. The Arab Spring signifies a historical milestone in the region’s political evolution, with far reaching effects on the future. The post-colonial era, which saw the birth of Israel, the successive manifestation of its military might, its domination of the Palestinian people backed up by the neutralisation of key players such as Egypt, Jordan and eventually the PLO, is coming to an end.
Old foes/allies have been toppled, or are gravely weakened, and for the first time in recent history Arab dictatorships are falling one after the other. The familiar geopolitical terrain, which Israel understood and manipulated to serve its goals, is disappearing fast. The 34-year-old peace treaty with Egypt is now under threat as millions of Egyptians take to the streets demanding its annulment. The ransacking of the Israeli embassy in Cairo on Friday marks a low point in relations between the two countries. It also underlines the challenges that Egypt’s new rulers face as they try to appease the public while honouring their international commitments. Israel now realises that its relations with Egypt have entered a dark tunnel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands the precarious position Israel now finds itself in. Israeli leaders praised former president Hosni Mubarak as a friend and an ally — they now know that whoever replaces him will never achieve such status. Egypt’s military council is walking a tightrope, trying to absorb public anger at home, in the aftermath of Israel’s gunning down of five Egyptian soldiers along the Sinai borders recently, and maintaining essential security and intelligence coordination with Tel Aviv to contain the state of lawlessness that permeates the demilitarised peninsula.
The one main thing that has changed for Israel is, ironically, the key issue that it has always used to distinguish itself from its Arab neighbours: being the only true democracy surrounded by dictatorships. Popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Morocco and others have all called for democracy and freedom in the name of the people. While the transition may take some time, the world can only applaud the arrival of democracy to the Arab world. It’s a new ball game for Israel, and others, which for long has argued that its enemies are ruthless regimes who deny their citizens basic democratic rights.
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Arab revolutions may have shifted attention from the Palestine question, but not for long. There is no doubt that popular sentiments across the Arab world are extremely hostile towards Israel and for a good reason too: The Palestinians are seen as Arab victims of a vicious occupation that does not hesitate to kill and maim while arrogantly rejecting peace offerings. And now that Islamist parties and groups are rising to power in most Arab countries, and will certainly win in upcoming elections, anti-Israel feelings will reflect on future government policies.
Israel’s fear of international isolation is amplified by Palestinian determination to take their case to the UN this month. The failure of decades of aimless negotiations coupled with taking unilateral steps to Judaise occupied east Jerusalem, fatten and build new colonies in the West Bank, refusal to compromise on fundamental issues such as borders, refugees, among others, have taken their toll on the beleaguered Palestinian leadership. It has so far brushed aside US and Israeli pressures and threats and is adamant on changing an intractable status quo.
In the past Israel could also count on its Arab allies to put pressure on the Palestinians. But in the new Middle East the Palestinians have one formidable advantage: Public support by millions from Morocco to Oman. If that did not make a difference a year ago, it certainly will in today’s rebellious Arab world.
Israel’s watchful eyes are now on Syria, a longtime foe but also an enemy with which it had reached an entente. The fall of Bashar Al Assad’s Baath regime, if that happens soon, will top Israel’s national security agenda. It will undermine the Tehran-Damascus axis, and cut off strategic support to Hezbollah, but it opens questions about the nature of the new political system in Syria. One thing is clear and that is no Syrian will ever give up historical and legal claims to the occupied Golan Heights.
Israel will hold the upper hand, in military terms, but that is not the weapon that will be needed to face new challenges in a changing region. New Arab democracies will have a greater role to play both regionally and internationally. Their influence on the political scene will be felt and their support of the Palestinians will be unwavering. There will be pressure on the international community to resolve the old Palestine question in a just and equitable manner. By refusing to adapt to these realities Israel stands to become a rogue state.
Israel is waking up to a new set of threats and opportunities. But instead of appreciating what true peace with the Palestinians can deliver, extremists are warning of impending dangers: rise of the Islamists and increased threats to Israel’s security from its neighbours. They are promoting the fortress mentality; for Israel to shut down its gates and prepare for an invasion. This is both silly and dangerous. The only real threat to Israel emanates from its 44-year-old occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights and its brutal subjugation of the Palestinian people. Unless it accepts this and begins to address it, the world will keep pressuring Israel adding to its isolation.
Throughout its history Israel has refused to become a normal member of the community of nations. It had many chances to do so, but its greed and extreme dogma have forced it into a dead-end path. It should weigh its options carefully in light of what is taking place in the region. It holds the key to its salvation: Genuine peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.


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