When Christian fundamentalists predicted that May 21 would mark the end of the world, Jews laughed. We know that the end of the world won’t happen until September, when the Palestinians bring their declaration of the statehood to the UN General Assembly. Or when the Iranians get the Bomb. Or whenever President Obama utters the word “1967” and is not referring to Haight-Ashbury or Carl Yastrzemski.
The transformative effect of the so-called Arab Spring extends far beyond Arab states where it has already blossomed, into those that are yet to experience the unleashed force of popular power. These dynamics will irreversibly alter the political process between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Arab Spring has utterly transformed Israel’s security and foreign policy conditions in the region, primarily on two counts. First, in the past Israel directly engaged and negotiated with Arab leaders. This created a paradox: as Arab publics were merely spectators in the political process through the media, in many cases they took the opposite view of their leaders on Israel, reflecting their deep disbelief in them. Now, Israel must learn to engage better with the hundreds of millions of Arabs across the Middle East who have suddenly stepped onto the political playing field.
Second, Israel is now faced with a dire dilemma: pull back or engage. Some argue that it should get out of the way, so to speak, by decreasing tensions with the Palestinians in and around Gaza. This is the time, they say, for bold moves toward the Palestinian Authority, so that the energy and fury of the Arab streets does not turn against Israel. Other voices argue the opposite — that this is no time for any significant moves until the dust settles and a new reality stabilizes.
While Israelis are arguing, then, transformative changes are occurring all around the Jewish state. The surprising agreement between Fatah and Hamas, which loosely bridges over the parties’ ideological divide, as well as disagreements on a constitution and politics, represents a clear choice by PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party: they have opted for internal unity with Hamas over the prospects for a successful political process with Israel and the U.S. This move can be explained by the shared fear of the parties from the rise of the Palestinian street. When the ground started shifting under Fatah and Hamas’ feet, they were quick to declare that elections will be held within one year. Immediately thereafter, internal tensions and frustrations seemed to have been eased and the focus was, yet again, turned to Israel.
Furthermore, the recent opening of the Gaza-Egypt border is also an outcome of a strong popular sentiment, which the government of Egypt did not want or could not resist. Its effect is transformative, not only on security and economic arrangements, but also on the international status of Gaza and on the motions to declare Palestinians statehood in September in the United Nations, as one part of its territory is clearly free and open to the world.
The sense of empowerment creates tangible concerns on the Israeli side as well. With the prelude of the so-called Nakba Day, on May 15, when hundreds of Palestinians stormed the fences of Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon, a doomsday scenario come September presents itself: hundreds of thousands of Palestinians marching on the Israeli settlements, borders and roadblocks. Such a scenario is deeply alarming to an Israeli government that already confronts a global assault on the legitimacy of Israel and feels that its hands are tied when force needs to be deployed, thus reinforcing the confidence and audacity of the demonstrators.
Finally, the Palestinian statehood bid at the UN should also force those who advocate negotiations toward a comprehensive permanent-status agreement to rethink their approach. While a Palestinian national unity government, which includes Hamas that rejects the existing agreements with Israel and negates its existence, cannot sign a comprehensive agreement that brings end of conflict and finality of claims, a Palestinian leadership that marginalizes Hamas does not have the legitimacy to conclude and ratify such an agreement. Hence, a premature attempt to pin down the two-state solution may lead to the implosion of the Palestinian Authority in the face of massive popular unrest and to the reinstatement of full Israeli control.
In such a reality, the only possible path for political progress has to be based on coordinated unilateral moves that avoid the challenge of legitimizing formal agreements with inevitable concessions, which force a moment of truth in a time of great structural weakness. Hence, the Palestinian motion to declare a state in the United Nations in September may also present Israel with opportunities. If its leaders manage the situation properly, Israel can lead rather than be led. The political benefits of playing to internal coalition building — of being in the passenger’s seat instead of the driver’s seat, so to speak — come at a strategic cost of being boxed into an uncomfortable political process in an extremely volatile environment.
Meanwhile, taking bold initiatives means political instability. Yet, as the Palestinian side, as well as the resistance network of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah have each developed sophisticated approaches to challenge Israel, the procrastination may come at a high price.
Now is the time to seize the initiative and drive the only process that can be driven: the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank in coordination with the U.S. and other leading nations.
Otherwise, buckle up.
Gidi Grinstein is the president and founder of the Reut Institute, an Israeli nonprofit strategy and impact group working on national security and economic development challenges facing Israel.