Israel’s obduracy

March 26, 2011

Sooner or later, the plight of Palestinians will return to the center of Arab discourse

IN the wake of increased violence and heightened tension along the Gaza border, Palestinians continue to sound a willingness to renew efforts toward peace with Israel. Israeli politicians are also calling for action — for stronger military reaction to the latest spike in Mideast attacks and reprisals.

Violence along the Gaza border has been escalating. Last Saturday, Gaza fighters bombarded southern Israel after which Israeli shelling missed its target and killed three children and their uncle in Gaza. As the violence increased on the border, in midweek a bomb exploded at a bus stop in Jerusalem, killing a British tourist and injuring dozens of Israelis.

The reaction to the violence has been telling. Both Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad issued condemnations shortly after the bus explosion, and Palestinian security was energetically engaged in the search for those who carried it out.

In Israel, however, there were loud calls for heads to roll for the missiles out of Gaza and then, even more vocally, for a tough response to the bus blast, even though security officials said there was no indication who was responsible for it.

Israel would do well to tone down the rhetoric for it is witnessing unnerving days. The uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down as president, plus the ongoing unrest in Jordan, have shaken the pillars of Israeli security which include peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. There are worries in Tel Aviv about the new government forming in Egypt and whether the eventual leaders would be as committed to peace as defined by Israel as was Mubarak. There are also concerns that the unrest in the Arab world could undermine Jordan’s stability.

In the broader context, Israel must worry about how the peace process, which it is preventing from moving, and the Palestinian territories, which it continues to occupy, ties in with this unprecedented regional unrest. The best way to stay ahead of the populist movement, stated US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who was visiting the region, is to negotiate peace and remove the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the discourse. Is Israel listening? As the wave of unrest reverberates through the region, thus far the demonstrations have not targeted Israel. Protesters have been locked on to only local demands calling for a better quality of life. But sooner or later, once the demands of the masses of these countries are met, by one means or another, the demonstrators will turn their attention back to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Up until this Arab spring of unrest, the single biggest issue in the Middle East and the one uniting all Arab peoples was the Palestinian cause. The smoke of the unrest has clouded the issue but that smoke will eventually blow away, leaving Israel exposed and perilously vulnerable.

This is a time of great challenge for the region and also presents an opportunity to redouble efforts to pursue the cause of peace and justice and security. Negotiating peace is one way to get ahead of the wave of populist uprisings. The latest spike in Mideast violence must not derail the peace process and bold diplomatic and peaceful action by Israelis are essential. The Palestinians do not want to see an escalation in last week’s violence with Israel and do not want it to derail the peace process. But in the wake of the violence, entreaties to Israeli leaders have been publicly rebuffed and met, not with wise statements calling for calm, but with vows for retribution.


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