Can a Palestinian Spring Bring Middle Eastern Peace?: View

The Israeli and Palestinian governments say they are committed to negotiations to resolve their conflict. President Barack Obama insists there must be progress in the peace process.

In reality, there is no such process.

The U.S. special envoy to the Mideast, George Mitchell, quit in frustration in mid-May. Talks are off, and the two sides have dug in. The Israelis are expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, inflaming Palestinian sentiments. The Palestinians are planning to embarrass Israel at the UN in September with a symbolic vote to support a Palestinian state.

The recent contentiousness between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over whether the borders of a future Palestine state would be based in principle on pre-1967 lines aggravated U.S.-Israeli relations. That is no recipe for peacemaking.

What is needed is a deus ex machina to shake things up. The Arab Spring may be just that.

In a new Pew Research Center poll, 73 percent of Palestinians said they thought the protests by fellow Arabs demanding their rights from Morocco to Syria to Yemen would lead to greater democracy in the Mideast. Among the 23 Muslim publics surveyed, only Jordanians were as optimistic.

The question is, what lessons will the Palestinians draw for their own struggle for self-determination?

Peaceful Resistance

The uprisings in the Arab world have demonstrated the enormous power of peaceful resistance to oppression. Unarmed crowds in Tunisia and Egypt achieved, in a matter of weeks, the downfall of two long-standing dictators, far exceeding the accomplishments of 50 years of violent Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.

It almost looked as if the Palestinians were getting the message when, in mid-May, hundreds of them marched, unarmed, on Israeli frontiers from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. However, some pushed across Israeli lines, which went beyond peaceful protest.

For the past nine years, a network of Palestinian groups have slowly built up popular committees that organize weekly non-violent protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The peaceful sentiment behind these efforts, however, gets canceled out every time the militants of the Palestinian group Hamas fire a missile on civilians, as they did at an Israeli school bus on April 7.

If the Palestinians proceed with their plan to force the UN General Assembly to vote on statehood, it will embarrass Israel. But it will get them no closer to a real state with real powers. That will require Israel’s assent.

Power-Sharing Arrangement

And as things stand now, the asymmetry of power in the Middle East gives Israel little incentive to compromise. Israel’s military is superior to the militaries of its neighbors combined. Its economy is booming. The wall Israelis built to keep out Palestinian bombers has worked remarkably well.

Yet the dynamic may shift. Hamas and the mainstream Palestinian movement Fatah have entered into a power-sharing arrangement that, according to a negotiator of the deal, includes a pledge by Hamas to cease violence. If that promise sticks long-term -- a big if -- and if the Palestinians take up non-violent protest in a momentous way, Israelis would find it difficult to maintain their current hard line on a peace settlement.

International Isolation

This is not because Israel would otherwise be isolated internationally; Israelis have developed a thick skin for the opprobrium of others. Rather, as citizens of a democratic nation, they would not easily stomach having their soldiers subjugate a people who have laid down their arms.

It was, in fact, the unbearable asymmetry of the first intifada -- the Palestinian uprising from 1987 to 1993 in which boycotts of Israeli goods, labor strikes and rock-throwing were met by Israeli military might -- that first drew the Israelis to the peace table with the Palestinians. Those talks eventually resulted in the Oslo accords. Though often derided today, Oslo at least provided Palestinians limited autonomy in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

At this stage, the Israelis’ savviest move would be to return, with a spirit of magnanimity, to serious bargaining with the Palestinians, while Israel’s might still works to its advantage. As the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt discovered, overwhelming military power is not a permanent trump card.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at