Tides of Change and Its Implications for Palestinians

By Dr. Ahmed Yousef

Speaking 150 years ago about political judgments, [Otto von] Bismarck said if we listen carefully, we can hear the sound of hoof-beats in the distance and plan accordingly.

The hoof-beats are near today, not distant, so there is little time to waste before we readjust our thinking and map out new strategies that correspond to rapidly emerging facts on the ground.

There are 5 critical factors to consider regarding recent events in the Arab and Muslim world.

The first point is that the winds of change now being unleashed in the Middle East have pushed Islamists from the margins into the very center of political decision-making. Islamists will assume a partnership role in government; and they will, as leaders of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt have re-iterated, work on behalf of national unity and national re-building.

The second point is that the Palestinian question, the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination, will move to the top of the agenda. Authoritarian regimes had ignored or suppressed the voice of the people for decades; but as democracies emerge, leaders must listen. And the people who have been going out into the Arab street want justice, not just in their own countries, not just for themselves, but for Palestinians.

Palestine is enormously symbolic to the Arab people: the resistance of Palestinians in Gaza, their determination and perseverance, their sacrifice, their defense of dignity—these have served as an inspiration. Governments must now act in accordance with the popular voice, the popular will that demands tangible action to lift the siege of Gaza; and to adopt policies that serve the needs and interests of the Palestinians.

The third point is that Egypt will re-assume its historical role as the center of political gravity in the Arab world, and that its government – reflecting the values and convictions of the Egyptian people – will take the global lead in mobilizing Arabs and Muslim in defense of Palestinian rights.  And because its base and mandate will be popular and democratic, the power of Egypt as a champion of Palestinian rights will gain in strength. The Americans, for example, have already signaled their readiness to engage with the Muslim Brothers and accept their role as part of the ruling coalition. This coalition is bound to take a very different line vis-à-vis Palestine and Israel than the Mubarak regime. And that line will be credible and legitimate because it expresses democratic sentiment.

The fourth point is that the winds of change creating new spaces for democratic action and for coalition politics will have very positive effects on prospects for Palestinian unity. The movement in Tahrir Square was a broad-based movement, bringing together old and young, Muslims and Copts, men and women, around a shared vision of national redemption and renewal.

Factionalism, sectarianism, narrow political self-interest were swept away. I think that in Gaza and the West Bank, the leaders of the two rival governments are beginning to read the handwriting on the wall. The mood among the Palestinian public is shifting. Demands will increase for reconciliation, for an end to the bitter stand-off that has crippled the emergence of an effective national liberation movement and played into the hands of the Israelis. The strongest voices making these demands will be the voices of the young. 

The Israelis label it the demographic time-bomb. Palestine has one of the youngest and fastest growing youth populations. Two-thirds of society is less than thirty years old. But while a majority, this is a majority whose views and opinions have too long been ignored. I believe this will change.

What they are demanding now is a new future, a united future. They know, as President Lincoln told the American people, that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” And unless their call for reconciliation is heeded, politicians on both sides of the Hamas-Fatah split will pay the price.

The fifth and last point is that the international community, in particular the US, can no longer maintain its policy of isolating and ignoring Hamas. A Palestinian unity government will be elected; Hamas will play a pivotal role in that government; and unlike in 2006, this government will be accepted rather than boycotted.

There is a popular revolution taking place in the Middle East; the US is not blind.  The Obama administration will seek to take credit for the democratic changes being unleashed and point to them as a foreign policy victory during the presidential campaign in 2012.  It will work with Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere to make sure that reforms are consolidated and unity is institutionalized.

The credibility of the US depends upon extending its hand in the same spirit to the national project of the Palestinians, and to the Islamists who are such a central actor in this project.

The bottom line, for any unity government, will be a Palestinian state on pre-1967 borders and Jerusalem its capital. Anything short of that is doomed to fail; but accepting it will make a possible peaceful settlement to the conflict. This has been the consistent position of Hamas, no matter how the views of the movement have been distorted and demonized. Its ideological orientation, its vision for the development of Palestine moving forward, is to the model of Erdogan and Turkey.

But this leaves open the question of Israeli attitudes to unfolding events in the region. How will it respond to efforts by Hamas to strike a middle path in pursuit of political Islam? How will it seek to manage its relations with Egypt as that country inevitably realigns itself in favor of much more active support for Palestinian rights?

I am no mind-reader, especially with the Israelis, who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. But while I remain amazed by their self-destructive intransigence, I still hold out hope that a saving remnant still exists, that there are enough people of sound judgment to see that the Jewish survival in the Holy land depends upon a strategic compromise with the Palestinian. A real peace process must be entered into now, because time is running out. The Arab and Muslim world is recovering its voice, its values, and its power. And therefore, what is on offer today may not be on offer tomorrow. Opportunities for a diplomatic settlement and for the creation of a Palestinian state must be seized without delay.

The United States, I think, knows this. I have lived in America and understand that policies, once thought to be set in stone, can undergo rapid transformation. This proved true in relations with China, where foe suddenly became friend. Or in relations with Saddam, where friend suddenly became foe.

It is true that Israel and the US have what is called a “special relation,” but even here, America’s geo-strategic interests come first. The US is powerful enough so that it can take a 180 degree turn and not to have to make apologies to anyone.

So I continue to have faith that sooner or later—and I very much hope sooner—the Obama team will ramp up pressure on Israel to get with the program, to recognize a Palestine state on pre-1967 borders and Jerusalem its capital. And I think that pressure has to contain the message, the threat, that if you continue to stall, continue to backtrack, continue to play with Jerusalem-a sacred place and a flash-point for 1.3 billion Muslim-you will be more and more left on your own, surrounded by neighbors who will no longer submit to being humiliated, and who will grow increasingly prepared to support Palestinian efforts—including all forms of resistance-to win their legitimate rights.

–  Dr. Ahmed Yousef is the former senior Advisor to Gaza-based Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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