Israel and the UN vote on Palestine: Blame it on the Arab Spring

Democracy can be dangerous. The aftermath of the heady Arab Spring has been a sombre reminder of the perils of popular will. The riotous scenes in Tahrir Square replaced by the spectacle of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi awarding himself distinctly undemocratic powers. The Egyptians are not alone in feeling the chill.  The threat posed by a post-Arab Spring Mideast to Israel was writ large in overwhelming 138-9 UN vote to grant "non member state" status to Palestine.

The resolution -- which passed despite furious threats from the US and Israel to cut funding to West Bank -- is symbolic of a new geopolitical reality which has reenergised the Palestinian cause:

Hanan Ashrawi, a top Palestinian Liberation Organisation official, told a news conference in Ramallah that "the Palestinians can't be blackmailed all the time with money."

"If Israel wants to destabilise the whole region, it can," she said. "We are talking to the Arab world about their support, if Israel responds with financial measures, and the EU has indicated they will not stop their support to us."

While the EU votes were hardly key to delivering victory, they mark an important , as Max Fisher notes in the Washington Post. Over the course of a single year, 5 countries -- Italy, Denmark, Switzerland, Portugal, Georgia -- moved from abstaining on a resolution granting recognition to Palestine to voting 'yes.' Three -- Germany, Netherlands, Lithuania -- moved from 'no' to 'abstain.' That's bad news for Israel.

While Fisher doesn't speculate about the reasons for this shift, Adam Shatz's must-read essay  in the London Review of books offers some clues:

Israeli leaders lamented for years that theirs was the only democracy in the region. What this season of revolts has revealed is that Israel had a very deep investment in Arab authoritarianism. The unravelling of the old Arab order, when Israel could count on the quiet complicity of Arab big men who satisfied their subjects with flamboyant denunciations of Israeli misdeeds but did little to block them, has been painful for Israel, leaving it feeling lonelier than ever. It is this acute sense of vulnerability, even more than Netanyahu’s desire to bolster his martial credentials before the January elections, that led Israel into war.

The argument that a post-Arab Spring Middle East is bad news for Israel is hard to dismiss. Reuters

Gone is the comforting presence of Hosni Mubarak, who could be counted to toe the American line on Israel, replaced by Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas' parent organization) elected to represent the overwhelmingly anti-Israeli Egyptian people. Thus a man willing to warn Israel, "Egypt is different from yesterday. We assure them that the price will be high for continued aggression."

As Shatz goes down the list of Middle East nations, the scenario grows ever gloomier for Israel. There's the Jordanian monarchy facing popular revolt, a post-Assad Syria that is no less unfriendly. Add to that Turkey, Qatar and Tunisia:

Hamas, meanwhile, has been buoyed by the same regional shifts, particularly the triumph of Islamist movements in Tunisia and Egypt: Hamas, not Israel, has been ‘normalised’ by the Arab uprisings. Since the flotilla affair, it has developed a close relationship with Turkey, which is keen to use the Palestinian question to project its influence in the Arab world. It also took the risk of breaking with its patrons in Syria: earlier this year, Khaled Meshaal left Damascus for Doha, while his number two, Mousa Abu Marzook, set himself up in Cairo. Since then, Hamas has thrown in its lot with the Syrian uprising, distanced itself from Iran, and found new sources of financial and political support in Qatar, Egypt and Tunisia.

While Shatz wears his Palestinian sympathies on his sleeve, his argument that a post-Arab Spring Middle East is bad news for Israel is hard to dismiss: "The Palestinians understand that they are no longer facing Israel on their own: Israel, not Hamas, is the region’s pariah. The Arab world is changing, but Israel is not."

And all the pyrotechnic might of the Israeli military can do little to change that unpleasant fact. Ashrawi described the resolution a "historic turning point" for Palestine. If Shatz is right, the Arab Spring may well prove to be the same for Israel.

You can read Shatz's essay in its entirety on the LRB website

Updated Date: Nov 30, 2012 10:33 AM