The so-called Arab spring, or ‘Jasmine’ revolution, which has rocked the Arab world and is still ongoing to this moment has, and will, drastically change the shape of politics and international relations in the region. The revolution has not only impacted the Arab world and its relations with other states, but may have indirectly and profoundly altered the course of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Within the territory occupied by Israel itself, the two rival Palestinian factions of Hamas and Fatah have signed what may prove to be a historic accord putting an end to decades of rivalry. The change came as protesters, numbering in the tens of thousands, took to the street adopting the slogans of the revolution and demanding unity. Unity deals had been discussed before, but had ultimately fallen apart. However, the Arab spring changed this; the two groups now see themselves as popular movements, having to comply with the demands of the people. On top of this Hamas has been backed by Syria which is currently experiencing its own popular uprisings; uprisings the Syrian government asked Hamas to stand against, something they could not do as a popular movement. Thus they needed to find a new source of backing, and unity could be just that.
Outside of Israel, Egypt – which had been the state’s main ally in the region under President Mubarak – is charting a markedly different course. With elections around the corner, the new government has taken a stance more directly reflecting the mood of the people. Firstly, Egypt is opening the border to the Gaza strip which has previously been blockaded by Israel and Egypt to prevent the armament of Hamas. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly for Israel, the new Egyptian government was instrumental in bringing Hamas into the unity deal. The new Egyptian government has been warming to Hamas, Fatah and Iran, creating an anti-Israeli axis within the region. Israeli hegemony in the region, which this time last year seemed unquestionable, has suddenly been challenged by the changing face of regional relations.
The two rival Palestinian factions have come together to press the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to recognise an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 border; a proposal supported by Egypt and with the backing of U.S President Obama. Khaled Meshal of Hamas describes his goal as “a Palestinian state in the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its capital, without any settlements or settlers, not an inch of land swaps and respecting the right of return” of refugees. However, this is at odds with both Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama takes the more moderate view of negotiated land swops to recognise Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Gaza since 1969. Netanyahu outright rejects the proposal and any negotiations.
On the 22nd of May, before the pro-Israel lobby, Obama defended his stance on this issue that conflicts with his Israeli counterparts, at the conference of the ‘American Israel Public Affairs Committee’. Obama challenged Israel to “make the hard choices” needed for a stable peace. He went on to say that “we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades to achieve peace. The world is moving too fast”. This position conveys some political risk for the president as he enters his re-election campaign. The Republic party is attempting to capitalise on the president’s difficult decision by presenting themselves as more reliable protectors of Israel than the Democrats to Jewish-American voters. Despite the risk, Obama has clearly demonstrated his support for the idea, thus making it a more realistic possibility.
Palestine’s admission to the UN would pave the way for the internationalisation of the conflict; not only as a political matter, but also a legal matter. Furthermore, it may make way for Palestine to pursue claims against Israel on human rights ground at the UN and the International Court of Justice. This is obviously something Israel does not want to happen. This is reflected in both the view and actions of Prime Minister Netanyahu as he returns to Israel after a whistle stop tour of foreign capitals, attempting to drum up support against Palestine’s admission into the UN. Despite this, Obama’s proposals for the Palestinian state have received the political backing of the UN, the European Union (EU) and the Russian Federation – which with the U.S are the international mediators overseeing the peace efforts. Therefore, there is strong international support for the 1967 border proposal of a Palestinian state. However, if the plan has any hope of becoming a reality, Hamas’ insistence that there can be no land swops, their refusal to swear off the use of violence, and the outright hostility of Israel and its prime minister will all need to be overcome.
The events of the Arab Spring have made a peace forcing Israeli concessions seem more likely, but as Israel has demonstrated time and time again, it is not a state that makes concession. Even if this is not the breakthrough so many hope it may be, the Palestinian unity accords has brought a new sense of urgency to the peace process which have been deadlocked for so long.