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Challenges and Opportunities for the Middle East and North Africa

Submitted by on 13 Sep 2011 – 15:06

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine, Co-Chairman, Liberal Democrats Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs

At the time of writing it looks as though the 42 year old regime of Col. Gaddafi in Libya is over. If Libya, like Egypt and Tunisia, manages a transition to democratic rule, then one of the enduring myths of Middle Eastern rule – that of Arab Exceptionalism  – will have been set aside.  For generations there has been an assumption that Arabs, by choice or circumstance, cannot embrace the liberties and enlightenment values that characterise western style liberal democracies.  This idea has also framed the American-Israeli relationship as one where Israel is uniquely the most reliable American ally in the Middle East as it, and only it, is a democracy which shares American values.  While no one watching events unfold through 2011 would suggest that Jeffersonian values will sweep the region from Tehran to Tangiers,  it is the case that the autocratic rule so traditional to the region is unravelling.  The implications of this for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process are profound.

Israeli calculations for a peace process (not necessarily designed to lead to a settlement) have been predicated on a series of strategic imperatives: the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan; the continuation of open ended US support guaranteed through Congress and the Senate should the White House be less forthcoming; and on the Palestinians remaining divided between Fatah and Hamas, with international support restricted only to Fatah.  All have to be reassessed now.

The emergence of domestic public opinion in Egypt and to some extent in Jordan will inevitably constrain those governments’ ability to ignore Israeli breaches of international and humanitarian law. Operation Cast Lead, the Mavi Maara or skirmishes in the Sinai desert will bring the masses out in Cairo and Amman – just as one would expect in a democracy.  Moreover, the Al-Jazeera Wiki leaks cables of January 2011 have hardened moderate opinion around the Muslim world against Israel. These widely corroborated reports based on secret negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis demonstrated how many concessions the Palestinian negotiators had offered up for peace.  A general frustration with Israel is spreading to the EU and UK too.  A Chatham House survey of British public attitudes in June 2011 revealed that the public ranked Israel number 5 on the list of ‘especially unfavourable’ countries after Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Saudi Arabia respectively.

The Arab awakening will also bring about a strategic shift in the US position. If Israel’s appeal to the American people is based strongly on ‘shared values’, this becomes a harder sell when its neighbours also embrace those values.  Its lobbying has therefore intensified in Washington. The New York Times revealed on 15th August that 80 members of Congress (20 per cent) are visiting Israel this month as guests of a charity affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.  These visits build powerful ties, and are expected to lead to furious Congressional lobbying against a UN Palestinian statehood resolution in September. It is nevertheless becoming more difficult for the US to sustain endless vetoes in favour of Israel in the UN – and there is hope that in light of support for it from the EU three (the UK, France and Germany) the US might yet abstain rather than veto.  Much will depend on the exact wording of the Palestinian resolution.

The question of Palestinian Fatah and Hamas relations also affects the peace equation.  While Hamas has been an obstacle to peace, allowing successive Israeli governments to argue that they do not have a negotiating partner in Gaza, it is increasingly clear that the changed situation in the Egyptian Sinai has altered the balance in the siege.  I visited Gaza through the Sinai Refah crossing in July to assess the situation. The siege, imposed to prevent rocket attacks into Gaza, has failed in that aim, but metes out collective punishment to all those living in Gaza, as the essentials for normal economic are withheld too – including the most basic humanitarian aid supplies. The prize of normalisation of life for the 1.6 million Gazians will be the consequent loosening of Hamas’s grip there – currently the hardship makes people more reliant on Hamas, and illegality thrives through hundreds of illegal tunnels which bring Gaza’s goods – contraband and legal.   As Israel cannot see how counter-productive its stance is, a creative solution must be found through the Egyptian border.

The Sinai has been deemed a de-militarised zone through the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and so it should remain. But a UN peacekeeping force deployed along the Gaza-Sinai border could legitimately be tasked with regulating border crossings between Gaza and Egypt including verifying and validating movement through new, secure, above ground border crossings, to allow for the  movement of goods and people legally into Egypt and beyond.  This opening up of Gaza to the outside world could be sufficient as a game-changer to give teeth to the recently signed Reconciliation Agreement between Fatah and Hamas.  With a new government speaking for both Palestinian entities a fresh impetus for peace negotiations could be brought about.

The Arab awakening poses Israel and the international community with fresh opportunities to resolve one of the world’s most intractable problems. Nearly a century after the United Kingdom announced the Balfour Declaration in favour of a Jewish homeland, it is time to think creatively about how to meet the legitimate aspirations of Arabs.  The era of exceptionalism is ending in the Middle East.