The Arab Democratic Wave and the Middle East Conflict: A Window of Opportunity

In the past nine months popular demonstrations have swept the Middle East and have led to the toppling of authoritarian governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and later Libya. At the same time, other governments in the region have been experiencing intense popular uprisings challenging their rule and asking for political reforms: some are trying to repress these demonstrations with the use of force, some are trying to hurriedly pass some kind of reforms to appease popular requests. The outcome of this political transformation of the region is still very much uncertain, and may differ profoundly from country to country. What is clear however is that citizens across the Middle East felt unrepresented by their governments and expressed their desire for deep political change.

In this context many have wondered if a new window of opportunity might open for progress in the Middle East peace process. Could democratic reform create the conditions for the advancement of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and for normalization of relations between Israel and the rest of the region?

In truth, at the moment the opposite seems to be true.

The need to better reflect popular opinion has brought the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces now in power in Egypt to significantly cool its relations with Israel, and reassurances that Egypt will uphold its end of the peace treaty are drowned by the clamour of the attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo by a group of violent protesters.

Threat of violence have brought about the temporary evacuation of the Israeli embassy in Jordan, and Turkey has decided to expel the Israeli Ambassador in a flare up of tensions regarding the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident and Israel’s refusal to apologize for the killing of nine Turkish nationals on board the Mavi Marmara.

Israel on its part has initially tried to avoid any comments on the popular uprisings in the region, its government caught in a very uncomfortable paradox. On the one hand the lack democracy in the region has often been described by Israel as one of the main reasons for the lack of progress in the peace process; on the other hand Israel has seen the toppling of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule as a potentially very dangerous development for itself both politically and from a security standpoint, as popular discontent for Egypt’s cold peace with Israel is now expressed more forcefully and is more likely to find resonance in the government.

Political Islam is gaining a greater space in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, a development feared to bring further hostility towards Israel. All these changes have increased Israel’s sense of imminent danger and feeling of being surrounded by enemies, this in turn resulting in continued stalling of the peace process with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority is trying the seize the political momentum created by the Arab Spring by attempting to channel the enthusiasm for democratic reform in the region towards concrete political support for Palestine’s bid for membership at the United Nations. This diplomatic move is putting on the spot several countries, especially members of the UN Security Council, who will be hard pressed to support the Palestinian request for statehood and self-determination but will also feel the pressure of Israeli and American arguments against unilateral moves.

While the Arab Spring has certainly opened a window of opportunity for democratic reform in several Arab states, the situation in the region remains highly fluid and the outcome of the uprisings uncertain. These conditions are proving to be a complicating factor in the Middle East peace process, with the main actors drifting further away from each other and more unwilling to make the compromises required to obtain a stable peace.

This essay was originally published by the European Union Institute for Security Studies: http://www.iss.europa.eu/regions/united-states/washington-forum-debate/

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