Netanyahu and the Arab spring
It has not taken long for US President Barack Obama's reaching out towards the Arab revolutionaries to run up against the Israeli wall, writes Abdel-Moneim Said
Two regionally and globally crucial spectacles have been unfolding in the Arab world this year. The first is the wave of "revolutions", or "uprisings", or whatever they might be called that have variously overthrown regimes, striven to overthrow others, and made yet others so uncomfortable that not a day goes by without them announcing various reforms.
The second spectacle originated in Washington, where US President Barack Obama has launched his latest initiative to kickstart a new Palestinian-Israeli peace process based on the two-state solution defined by the 1967 borders, albeit modifiable by land swaps in order to accommodate the concrete changes that have taken place over the past 44 years.
What happened next will be familiar to all: Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu went to Washington, furious at Obama's announcement. In spite of the fact that both leaders addressed the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Obama's speech being conciliatory while Netanyahu remained inflexible, the bridge between the two leaders remains fragile. However, to complete the picture, there is a need to refer as well to Netanyahu's speech to the joint houses of Congress, also made during his recent visit to Washington.
The standing ovation Netanyahu received there was a palpable reminder of how deeply Israel has worked its way under America's skin and that no differences between the two seem ever likely to ever spoil their intimacy.
The two spectacles combined are planting the seeds for new events in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama would not have uttered the magic words "1967 borders" if he had not wanted to woo the new Arab revolutionaries and taken some credit for steering their revolution towards the establishment of democracy, the spread of freedom and the advancement of American interests in the region. The approach is perfectly in keeping with Obama's sophisticated style, which contrasts so starkly with his predecessor's crass behaviour.
It is also an approach that is not far from the target. Obama's own appearance on the scene has been a special sort of revolution, and a rich and inspiring one at that. His address in Cairo delivered a revolutionary message, equating what America stands for with "humanitarian" traits. Certainly, no one will dispute the fact that Obama had previously displayed no great fondness for Arab leaders, unlike the Bush family with its various friendships and financial connections with a good number of them. However, it has nevertheless not taken long for Obama's courtship of the Arab revolutionaries to run up against the Israeli wall, one that invariably looms up to create a gulf between the US and the Arab world.
At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that in the modern history of the Middle East, revolution and Arab awakening have long been linked with the Palestinian cause. The recent reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, for example, probably reflected a general desire to take advantage of a propitious historical moment, which then found its reaffirmation in a global willingness to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and a US readiness to pronounce the magic words in spite of Israel's anger.
However, the problem may be more complicated still, since the Arab revolutionary movements of the second half of the 20th century, which often built their revolutionary credentials and impetus on their championship of the Palestinian cause, themselves became the enemies of the people, being crowned during the current revolutionary period with infamy and dishonour. This applies to the former regime in Iraq, the regime in Syria and the Mubarak regime in Egypt.
The case of Hizbullah reflects this revolutionary predicament with respect to the Palestinian cause and the struggle against Israel. It suffices to recall which side this group came down upon when it had to chose between the Syrian people, who are presently fighting for their future and for the future of their children, and a regime that has thrived off a conflict in which it has never fired a single shot to liberate the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation, regardless of its political posturing.
All this leads to the question of whether Netanyahu's new position is based on some type of analysis of the ongoing Arab revolutions. Does he believe that they will turn out to be like their predecessors and feed off the Palestinian cause, for example, and has this led him to want to deal firmly with them from the outset? Egypt received a message to the effect that Al-Qaeda was in control of the Sinai and that Israel therefore felt itself free to act as it wishes.
Alternatively, could Netanyahu's thinking be headed in another direction, such that the current Arab revolutions are seeking to rectify the fatal habit of previous revolutions of focussing on external affairs at the expense of domestic needs and that they will therefore seek to avert wars, conflicts and attendant tribulations?
Surely it is no coincidence that a leading Nasserist Arab nationalist and presidential candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, has stated several times that he has no intention of opening hostilities against Israel and every intention instead of waging war on poverty and fighting for educational and healthcare reforms and other such urgent domestic causes.
Of course, it is difficult to know what is going on in the minds of Israeli decision-makers. But the result seems clear: Netanyahu has decided to mix deterrence with opportunity. Undoubtedly, he believes that the Arab revolutions will not be prepared to move closer to peace on his terms and that they will most likely make the current peace colder than the polar icecaps. However, Israel can live with frigidity. Indeed, the Israeli right has never been keen to make the climate warmer, let alone to turn Israel into a normal country at home with others in the Middle East, a notion that seems to find few takers in Israel.
As is the case with epic narratives, the Arab spring and the Obama initiative are two threads of a story whose coming together does not herald an end, but rather forms one out of many chapters. The fate of this coming together is still difficult to determine. However, there are elements that seem to be propelling it forward, such as the recent French initiative offering to host a Palestinian-Israeli summit meeting, which must be seen against the backdrop of the looming September deadline when the Palestinians and Arabs plan to seek a UN General Assembly Resolution recognising a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.
France is clearly striving to score points for its new more active approach to the Middle East. However, it is also working in the same direction as Obama, which is to dissuade the Palestinians and Arabs from going to the UN in September.
Curiously, all this is unfolding at a time when the Arabs' own collective body, the Arab League, is weaker than ever. No Arab summit has been convened, and the current secretary-general is preoccupied with his own political future in Egypt. Meanwhile, bilateral relations that have long rested on an Egyptian-Saudi footing are in some confusion. There seems to be considerable wavering between the principle that this basis should remain firm regardless of changes in the political regime and the conviction that no basis can remain the same when its constituent components have changed.
The components, whether in Cairo or Riyadh, are changing, but the two sides continue to reach out to the other in the midst of a raging storm.
It is impossible to predict the end of a story having so many different and intricately interwoven threads. Yet, it would be equally impossible to ignore the Palestinian factor at this moment of Arab ferment, as much as it has been impossible at times of Arab stagnation.