Over a year has passed since the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, became the symbolic catalyst for the Arab Spring. In the intervening months, the geopolitical map of the entire region has been remade in response to the burgeoning people-power of the protest movements.
The entire region, that is, except for Israel and Palestine.
While regimes have fallen or been toppled, people have become empowered, civil society invigorated, and the West struggles to play catch up and make sense of the new reality of the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to represent the one constant.
Although the two-state solution has long gained acceptance in political circles as the endgame of the conflict, it has as of late come under threat. Despite countless diplomatic affirmations and a hard-won popular consensus with both Israelis and Palestinians, the two-state solution has been run aground by a failure to produce results, scarred by a long list of missed opportunities and is viewed with growing bitterness in the face of a stagnating political climate. Its opponents, though, quick and vocal in their criticism, have failed to offer a tenable alternative.
Indeed, the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations last September served to highlight just how far off we may be from peace: On a day when the issue of Palestinian recognition was highlighted with unprecedented alacrity, the competing narratives of the two people – embodied in Abbas’ and Netanyahu’s respective speeches to the General Assembly – failed to offer a single olive branch with which to move forward. Underlining the disparity between their political positions and their national interests, they spoke only to their bases, failing to take advantage of the world’s rapt attention.
Yet even now, with things seemingly at their most intractable, there is reason for honest, if cautious, optimism. While the consensus in Washington and the greater international community maintains that the conflict needs to ripen and the respective governments need to come around on their own (read: Nothing will happen anytime soon), similar predictive analysis also claimed that Mubarak was unassailably in control of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunisia. The growing gulf between the rhetoric of Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition government and Abbas’ Palestinian Authority – evidenced by the unsurprising failure of the recent talks in Amman, Jordan – belie important developments within each society that should not go unnoticed.
Today, marked the move toward a unity Palestinian government incorporating Fatah and Hamas and able to represent both the West Bank and Gaza. This year, we've also witnessed plans for long-postponed parliamentary elections. Brought about by a massive campaign of sit-ins and protests organized by the grassroots around Palestine, these developments indicate that a momentous change may be in the works within Palestinian politics, one in which the voice of the people will exercise unprecedented influence over.
For Israel’s part, hundreds of thousands of Israelis came together in the largest protest movement the country has seen in a generation. While they organized around domestic social justice issues, and largely failed to make the connection to the conflict, the potential for mobilization among a huge swath of disaffected and frustrated Israeli youths is tremendous: It requires only a strong civil society to redirect it toward ending the occupation.
The first step to reinvigorating the peace process is to redeem the approach itself. Negotiations have been operating along the same model for over 20 years and have achieved little. They have become debased in popular perception. The crisis of faith within both communities sends a clear message to their politicians: Don’t concede a moratorium on settlements; unilaterally go to the UN; who cares about negotiations.
Faith in the value of negotiations must be restored. Politicians on both sides must be encouraged and held accountable by their societies to take the necessary steps to resume meaningful negotiations and break deadlock.
Leaders around the globe witnessed the power of popular social movements in the Arab Spring: they saw what happened when Mubarak and Ben Ali refused to cede to the people’s demands just as they are now watching an entrenched regime in Syria combat an oppositional civil society. People power is reaching a boiling point in Israel and Palestine and this presents their leaders with a choice: they can harness the energy and channel it into reviving their visions for a two-state solution or they can betray their own national interests, further fracturing their already vulnerable societies.
The choice, ultimately, is up to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Only with a groundswell of popular mobilization, though, will the people’s sense of urgency get them to reevaluate their positions.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons