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Arab Spring changes may spur solution to Israel-Palestinian problem

Published: Sunday, November 25, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 23, 2012 at 6:04 p.m.

Can there ever be a lasting peace between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East? Another round of bloodshed suggests that any such hope is vain.

Amid the usual futile arguments over who started it, scores of buildings have been reduced to rubble. More than 140Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed, as have six Israelis. For the first time, missiles from Gaza have landed near Tel Aviv, Israel's metropolis, and the holy city of Jerusalem.

Though the Israelis and Palestinians seem stuck in their ancient conflict, however, around them the Middle East is changing. The Arab Spring has thrown the pieces up in the air and, like it or not, the Palestinians and Israelis are caught up in the regional turmoil. Maybe this will make their struggle bloodier than before, but there also are reasons for thinking it might somehow break their lethal stalemate.

At first sight, optimism looks hard to justify now. Even if the cease-fire sealed on Wedensday holds, this week's fighting has strengthened hawks on both sides.

The leaders of Hamas, the Islamist movement that has ruled Gaza since 2007, will claim to have forced the Israelis to back off, even though Gaza has taken a drubbing. Despite killing some of its leaders and bottling up Gaza's 1.7 million people in one of the most wretched and crowded corners of the planet, Israel has failed to destroy Hamas. Hamas in fact is gaining in the West Bank, the section of Palestine currently run by its bitter rivals in Fatah, the more-moderate Palestinian faction.

Hamas' leaders may well feel that time is on their side. As Islamists across the Arab world have gained clout, Hamas has made powerful and rich friends. Turkey, a resurgent regional power that once was Israel's closest Muslim ally, has taken up Hamas' cause. So has Qatar, one of the richest and most dynamic of the Gulf states. Jubilant Hamas people say that an Islamist crescent is curving around Israel, from Lebanon in the north, where the Hezbollah party-cum-militia holds sway, through Syria, where rebels of an increasingly Islamist bent may topple President Bashar Assad, and on down through Jordan, where Hamas' allies are menacing the king.

Above all, on Israel's southern flank, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood under President Muhammad Morsi of Egypt, by far the most populous and pivotal of Arab countries, has changed the region's balance. President Hosni Mubarak, the secular despot who ran Egypt for 30 years until his downfall in 2011, had little time for Hamas. The Brotherhood is a cousin of Hamas, however, and its leaders are more subject to popular opinion. In future diplomacy Hamas may emerge as an actor that cannot be shut out even by Israel and America.

Meanwhile Israel's hard-liners will draw the opposite conclusions. In military terms Hamas has been put back in its box. Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system has proven its worth, and many of Hamas' missiles have been destroyed. In diplomatic terms, America is as steadfast as ever, and many European countries also blamed Hamas for starting the latest round of violence. Israelis will sleep more soundly ... for a while.

Above all, Israel has prospered, especially under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has largely ignored the peace process. Although rockets from Gaza have killed around 30 Israelis since 2004, Israel has been fairly free of suicide bombers, thanks in part to the barrier that bites into the West Bank, the main section of the would-be Palestinian state, and protects the Jewish settlements that continue to expand despite their illegality under international law.

Netanyahu, whose Likud party has merged with an even more hawkish lot under Avigdor Lieberman in the run-up to an election on Jan. 22, is sitting pretty. Why coddle those untrustworthy Palestinians by giving them a state of their own? If they really ran the West Bank, wouldn't they fire rockets from there, as their compatriots have done in Gaza? Better to keep them behind that wall and smite them if they raise their heads.

Maybe the hard-liners will win out, but the Arab Spring may change their calculations. Even if the Islamists taking power in Egypt and elsewhere have little love for Israel, their priority will be tackling difficulties at home. Israel's defense budget is bigger than that of its four Arab neighbors combined. Starting a war with the local superpower would hardly help the new Arab governments mend their economies. That the pragmatic Morsi worked with President Barack Obama to negotiate a cease-fire augurs well and may mark the start of something.

Israelis, too, should look to the longer term. With the rest of the Arab world becoming more democratic, depriving Palestinians of their right to self-determination is creating a powder keg that is bound one day to explode in the territories occupied by Israel, much as a bus exploded in Tel Aviv this week. Repression is already undermining democracy in the Jewish state, and demography exacerbates this as the Arab population swells. Bloody missions against Gaza every few years to knock back Hamas will exact a growing diplomatic toll.

The answer remains the one trumpeted by sensible people on both sides and most of the outside world: two states, with Israel ceding territory for security.

The hope, a small one in the short term, is that the cease-fire will give a little more leverage to outsiders pushing that cause. Egypt, which now must set about stopping the flow of arms into Gaza, along with Qatar and Turkey, is better placed than ever to persuade Hamas to accept the idea of a Jewish state based on the 1967 boundaries with land swaps and a shared Jerusalem.

Arab outsiders also should press Fatah and Hamas to come together. That would do more to create a Palestinian state than the imminent bid for virtual statehood at the United Nations.

Obama also has a part to play in getting Israel to the table. During his first term he neglected to present his own plan for peace. Back in the White House, he is looking equally reluctant to be drawn in. This is woefully shortsighted.

America has a vital interest in a stable Middle East. That means a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

From the Economist magazine.

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