Compromise Loses Ground in Arab Spring

By Greg Sheridan

There is not the slightest chance of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute any time soon. Western politicians who address the issue ever more urgently are not only mistaken analytically, but may well be making things worse.

The whole world, including the Israelis and the Palestinians, knows the kind of territorial compromise that will ultimately be necessary for a peace deal. In a sense the precise detail of what territory the Palestinians ultimately get for their state is not the most important question.

I have been spending a week in Israel, and visiting some of the Palestinian territories, under the auspices of the Australia Israel United Kingdom Leadership Dialogue. This quite unique private organization is the creation of Melbourne businessman Albert Dadon. Remarkably, the Dialogue met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad and former British prime minister Tony Blair, although all those meetings were off the record.

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Spending time in Israel is dangerous because it is impossible to reconcile the evidence of your eyes with the accepted international narrative about Israel. In the international media, Israel is presented as militarist, right-wing, oppressive. In fact it is the only pluralist democracy in the Middle East, the only nation where women's rights -- and gay rights -- are protected. It has a vibrant Left wing, a cacophonous democracy and an innovative economy.

The vast majority of Israelis would love to be rid of the Palestinians and their territories if they could be confident they would get peace and security in return.

What makes me especially pessimistic about a peace deal at the moment is the interaction of two related dynamics -- the unfolding of the Arab Spring and the confused mess of Palestinian politics. The Arab Spring so far has yielded bitter fruit. Across much of North Africa, elections have been held and they have shown us again that elections alone do not make democracy.

Nonetheless, elections have results and these ones have greatly strengthened Islamists and Islamist extremists. In Egypt the biggest vote went to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was backed by some of the small but rich Persian Gulf oil states. Not very far behind the Brotherhood in Egypt was the even more extreme Salafists, who were strongly backed by Saudi Arabia. The Salafists' electoral success was extraordinary. Five minutes ago it didn't exist as a political movement, yet it won near enough to a quarter of the votes.

But overall, all across the Middle East, the big winner is the Muslim Brotherhood. Partly as a result, the Brotherhood is in great flux internally. But on one thing the Brotherhood is absolutely clear, its constant and comprehensive demonizing and delegitimizing of Israel. These newly empowered forces would denounce and fatally undermine any serious Palestinian compromise with Israel.

The Arab Spring has had many other consequences, none of which is helpful to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Libya is in chaos. The whole contents of weapons and munitions factories have disappeared and some of these are bound to turn up in terrorist atrocities.

At the same time the security forces of the North African states are falling apart. That is not wholly, perhaps not mainly, a bad thing as these security forces have been instruments of oppression. But every state, perhaps especially a new democracy, needs a security service.

There are other complications, and other countervailing factors. The Egyptian economy is collapsing, as is the Syrian and some other regional economies. This is inherently destabilizing, but it does give these governments an incentive to maintain terms of at least some amity with the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. This is particularly important at a time of diminishing American influence in the Middle East.

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Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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