The impact of the Arab Spring on peace in the Middle East – Implications for Palestine

3 February 2012

“Palestine is a nation under occupation and all Western prescriptions for its road to democracy have been abandoned,” said Michelle Pace, reader in politics and international studies at the University of Birmingham.

The EU has been at the forefront of external efforts to help the Palestinian Authority. It has tended to focus on building up the institutions of a viable Palestinian state – for example, by training the police force – rather than on encouraging Israel to disengage, Pace explained.

“I’ve been working on democracy promotion in the Middle East for a long time. Palestine is more familiar with democracy than any other Arab country. Although its democratic system is flawed, Palestine is still the most experienced,” she said.

The impetus to empower local communities and build institutions in Palestine comes mostly from within the Territories themselves, rather than from the outside. Boosting growth is the main goal, the academic observed.

She claimed that ordinary Palestinians would like to see a government of national unity. Persistent political divisions between Fatah and Hamas have opened up a huge cleavage in Palestinian society, which prevents popular movements in favour of national unity from gaining ground, she lamented.

Palestinians supported the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt by marching in their thousands, Pace recalled.

She urged the Palestinian leadership to work harder to provide welfare services for the population. “Neither Fatah nor Hamas should take their place in the Palestinian political landscape for granted. The Arab Spring showed that the status quo can soon disappear,” she said.

“There are three pillars to the Palestinian president’s strategy – negotiations, institution-building and peaceful forms of resistance. He wants to avoid military resistance,” said Majed Bamya from the General Delegation of Palestine to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg.  

Bamya praised the EU’s engagement in state- and institution-building.

The EU’s approach to the negotiations is to let both parties try to reach agreement themselves. The Palestinian president wanted a timeframe, clear terms of reference and a settlement freeze in return for agreeing to negotiate with the Israelis, he explained.

“The international community wanted to extend the timeframe and accepted the terms of reference, without forcing Israel to. It told us to go to the Israelis ourselves to discuss settlement building,” Bamya said.

“So now the choice is between process and peace. We’re choosing process. We need a way to put pressure on the Israelis. That’s what the UN move was for. We hoped it would help the negotiations, not hinder them. But the international community was neither able nor willing to help us,” he claimed.

“We didn’t get the support of Security Council members to go to a vote. We were asked to give peace negotiations more time, but got nothing from the Israelis. They want us to continue negotiating, but they don’t want the negotiations to succeed,” he said.

“A settlement freeze is of key importance to gain credibility among Palestinians. How can you talk about sharing a pizza while the other guy is eating it?” the Palestinian official asked.

Alluding to the events of the Arab Spring, Bamya said “Arab governments want to show that they’re interested in peace, but frankly their populations don’t like Israel – and with good reason”.

“Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is more essential than ever,” said Alfredo Conte, head of the strategic planning division at the European External Action Service (EEAS).

He pointed out that support for the Palestinian cause – and pressure on Israel – seemed to be increasing across the Arab world.

Peace between Israel and Palestine is a priority of EU foreign affairs supremo Catherine Ashton’s very challenging brief, Conte said. “She visited Gaza to show her personal commitment to building viable Palestinian institutions,” he explained.

“Ashton wants to transform the EU’s image in the Quartet into that of a real player,” Conte said.

He said the EU was at its most effective when it was united, but unfortunately it was not always possible to adopt a common position.

“The European Parliament believes that the Arab Spring brings new hope for strengthened links between the EU and the Arab world, and makes it even more imperative to find peace in the Middle East,” said Pekka Hakala, an expert on external policies at the European Parliament.

“MEPs reflect public opinion in EU member states, so we’re trying to bring citizens’ voices into EU foreign policy. The European Parliament has no foreign policy as such, but we fully exercise our powers over the EU’s foreign policy budget,” Hakala explained.

“We need a democratic renewal of the Palestinian institutions. We want to emphasise the importance of the parliamentary and institutional dimensions. We want the anger and frustration of the streets to be translated into new parliamentary, presidential and institutional arrangements that truly represent the Palestinian people,” he declared.