As popular rebellions spread across the Arab world, one fact has become clear. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the hub of the region’s problems.
For too long authoritarian Arab rulers have deflected attention away from their internal challenges, perpetuating the myth that corruption, soaring food prices and unemployment are caused by the conflict with Israel. The yearnings of Arabs across the region, more than 50 percent of whom are under the age of 25, would need to wait until Israelis and Palestinians reach a final peace accord.
Since Arab countries, except for Egypt and Jordan, resisted establishing relations with Israel, inaction became the method of entrenched Arab rulers.
The ingredients for the protests underway had been accumulating over decades. “In most Arab countries, the public has become restive in the grip of authority fashioned in a bygone age, and the state’s hold on power grows more fragile each year,” concluded the Arab Human Development Report www.arab-hdr.org, which offered detailed recommendations for improving the economic and social conditions of Arab societies.
A young fruit vendor’s self-immolation in a remote Tunisian village signaled that the cauldron of Arab discontent had boiled over. That dramatic act of protest has spurred a movement that brought down the Tunisian government, forced its president to flee, and generated mass protests in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak is struggling to hold onto power, as well as in Yemen and Jordan.
One cannot exclude the possibility that frustrations in other Arab countries, even in the Gulf, will surface. Another reason why Washington must develop an energy policy to end our reliance on Middle East oil.
Israelis, long accustomed to being the center of global opprobrium, can smile a bit as the international media focus on the turmoil in Arab lands. Yet, Israelis are concerned about what may transpire in each Arab country facing internal strife and the uncertainty of what will result.
In 1994, Tunisia established low-level diplomatic relations with Israel, but severed them when the second Palestinian intifada began in 2000. Will a new Tunisian government emerge dedicated to both improving the conditions of its citizens and building constructive ties with Israel? Or will a different leadership take power and lead this ostensibly moderate country in a different direction?
The outcome in Egypt, however, will have a greater impact on the region. Whoever emerges as President Hosni Mubarak’s successor, whether through the scheduled presidential elections, if they are allowed to be held fairly, or by Mubarak going into exile, or by a military coup, the future stability of Egyptian-Israeli relations as well as U.S.-Egypt ties will be at stake.
Uncertainty will prevail in the weeks and months ahead in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, as each troubled country sorts out its own internal crisis. If Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood emerge as power brokers, the prospects for both peace with Israel and the consolidation of democratic rights will suffer.
But there also may be a silver lining. Perhaps some Palestinians in Gaza will find inspiration from the protests in Arab countries and rise up against the Hamas terrorist regime which has brought them nothing but misery. Hamas, remember, is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now that would be an intifada, an uprising, worthy of the name.
Kenneth Bandler is the American Jewish Commitee’s director of communications.