The Daily Star (Opinion)
December 3, 2012 - 1:00am


Beyond the tragedy of the recent conflict in Gaza, the death of civilians and the never-ending misery, something occurred during the fighting that may be an important harbinger of things to come. The visits to Gaza by the Egyptian and Tunisian foreign ministers, a delegation from the Arab League, and a delegation of Egyptian political parties were a signal that the Arab world has changed, and that the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to be transformed.

These acts of Arab solidarity may not worry Israeli officials much yet, but they are the beginning of a trend – and an important one for the future of Israel. The Arabs are now saying loudly and clearly that the Palestinians will no longer stand alone against Israel; they will now gain direct support from Arab countries, for an issue, most importantly, that will soon be viewed as our cause, a common Arab cause.

This has not been the case since June 1967, when Israel soundly defeated the previous incarnation of such regional solidarity. With pan-Arabism shattered, Israel created the basis for bilateral dealings with its enemies: Egypt on the Sinai, Syria on the Golan Heights, and the Palestinians on specifically Palestinian issues.

This bilateralism was most convenient for Israel, and it succeeded with Egypt, while it failed with Syria and the Palestinians.

It has now given way to a new regional spirit, represented by democratically elected and popular Islamist-led governments, based on parties that are transnational in their foundations, and the active rejection of injustice by those who triumphed in the Arab revolutions. The Palestinian cause, Jerusalem and the plight of the refugees will once again be the committed causes.

In that sense, the Arab world and the conflict with Israel may be about to be re-regionalized, as it was before the debacle of 1967, but this time on Islamist rather than pan-Arab terms.

Many forget that between 1948 and 1967, it was the Arab countries, led by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, not the Palestinians, that confronted Israel. The latter took the stage when it was clear that the Arab bloc had failed, leaving Palestinians little choice but to take control of their own destiny.

We may now be seeing the reverse: the Palestinian national movement has failed, with a new regional alignment, led by Hamas and its allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, again leading the way.

This “re-regionalization” may have vast implications. Egypt will likely again be the centerpiece and leader of this sea change, but the Muslim Brotherhood will have to manage carefully over the medium term between its longer term ambitions and the continued need for material support from the United States and others. In turn, the West will have to navigate between its traditional support for Israel and the exigencies of the new Arab world.

Israel is likely to be frightened of this change, leading to an inclination to use more violence to fend off building pressures. We may see an irreconcilable confrontation between forces that cannot contemplate, never mind pursue, an end of conflict. It may also mean a new balance of power that will mean that negotiations – already very difficult – will restart at below zero. One outcome may be shaky truces – maybe the maximum possible given the prevailing ideologies and Israel's intransigence.

All is not yet lost. There is still room for a final conclusive agreement. However, time is short and the nature of any deal will be much more restricted. Given the recent political shifts, the only parameters that will have a chance to pass muster will be those that the new Arabs feel are just. Likely, only the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, without much dilution, are the minimum that Arabs will accept. Even these will come under virulent criticism by Islamists who do not want to recognize Israel, and whose ambitions will not dissipate easily.

However, if there is to be a game, the Arab Initiative may be the only game in town: It addresses final-status issues, is regional, and offers benefits to everyone. And to this day it is supported by the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Some believe its shelf life has already expired. Islamists will not buy into it given they were not part of its formulation, and it may have to be repackaged and remarketed. There remains, however, a window of a few years where the memory of past efforts, and the need for new Arab governments to achieve international legitimacy will coexist sufficiently for the terms of the initiative to still serve as a solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict.

For Israel, accepting these terms may seem a bitter pill to swallow. There is little room for negotiation of the principles, even if there is much on the detail. Enter the United States and other important international actors, to make that necessary medicine easier to take for Israel. The European Union may also be well placed to push the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative in cooperation with key Arab states, especially if Europe gains tacit American backing.

The Middle East has already suffered over six decades of misery due to this conflict. Time is woefully short to end the tragedy, and ensure it does not morph further into new and unimaginable forms of human madness. The opportunity exists (barely) to do so, and like all last chances it will have to be precisely taken.


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