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

by  Ruth Hanau Santini

The Arab Spring has impacted heavily upon the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The fall of Mubarak and the subsequent political uncertainty in Egypt, turmoil and instability in Syria and protests in Amman have all changed Israeli and Palestinian strategic calculations. The distance between the two sides has now increased to such a point that there is now talk of the death of the already ‘stalled’ process as we know it.

Israel is facing less secure borders on every side; after the killing of five Egyptian soldiers by Israel in the Sinai and the subsequent assault of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by an angry mob, diplomatic relations are tense. Moreover, the Sinai Peninsula, allegedly having already been penetrated by radical Islamists, has never been so insecure. The re-opening of the Rafah border crossing has further fuelled Israeli fears of an Iranian rearmament of Hamas. Many in Jerusalem fear an eventual Islamist takeover in Egypt and Tunisia, and possibly in Syria, a sentiment which reinforces a siege mentality. Moreover, for the first time, the weight of Arab public opinion, upgraded from the amorphous ‘Arab street’, will weigh more on foreign policy decisions. While the direction these changes will take is far from determined, Israel’s policymakers and public opinion are holding their breath, refraining from taking new regional or bilateral diplomatic initiatives.

The Palestinian Authority has rightly interpreted the uprisings as a wake up call vis-à-vis its frustrated population, two thirds of which do not believe a Palestinian state will emerge in the next five years and oppose a continued U.S. role in negotiations with Israel. It has intensified its attempts to gather support for its UN membership bid on the one hand and has tried to reconcile with Hamas on the other, so as to limit its political vulnerability. As for the peace process itself, the new era of Arab politics implies a final demise of the process as we know it and requires the elaboration of a new process for peacemaking, based upon a greater and deeper involvement of Arab actors and upon the re-definition of some of the traditional redlines.

Ruth Hanau Santini is a visiting fellow with the Brookings Intitution's Center on the United States and Europe through a joint program with the Council for the United States and Italy. She is also an associate fellow at the Johns Hopkins SAIS Bologna Center. A specialist in EU foreign policy, she previously was project coordinator for the Italian Foreign Policy Dialogue and collaborated on research projects with several European think tanks and universities.