The Palestine Question Amid Regional Transformations
For some time, the Journal of Palestine Studies’ sister quarterly, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya (MDF), has held small, open-ended roundtable discussions at the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) headquarters in Beirut to address issues of importance to Palestine and the Arab world, with a view to publishing the proceedings. On 15 December 2012, JPS followed suit, and in cooperation with MDF organized an English-language roundtable at the IPS Beirut headquarters to consider the impact, on Palestine, of the regional changes subsumed under the “Arab Spring” rubric. Participants ranged over an array of topics, including geopolitical changes at the global and regional levels; political, social, and intellectual trends from the Maghrib to the Gulf; and internal developments in several states, as well as within Palestinian communities in historic Palestine and the Diaspora. Especially noteworthy is the grounding of current developments in a historical framework evolving since World War I. The roundtable was transcribed by JPS Editorial Assistant Linda Khoury and the transcript edited by JPS Associate Editor Linda Butler.
Chair:Rashid Khalidi (RK)
IPS: Ahmad Samih Khalidi (ASK), Elias Khoury (EK), Camille Mansour (CM)
Guests: Cengiz Çandar (CC), Jim Muir (JM), and Yezid Sayigh (YS)
RK: As we’ve agreed, the theme we’re going to address today is how recent changes in the region affect the Palestinian question. I don’t want to direct the discussion, which I have no doubt will go in many directions, but obviously we’ll have things to say about the changes of regimes, new regional alignments, the latest developments of the U.S.-Iranian and Israeli-Iranian cold war (if we can call it that), the war in Syria, and the changes within Palestine as far as Hamas and the Ramallah Authority are concerned. All these factors are of interest to us, along with larger global issues—energy, U.S. priorities, strategies—and how they affect the region. All of these issues are also of interest to readers of JPS. So let’s begin.
YS: The two issues within these parameters that I’ve been thinking about and would like to start with are (1) the Arab Spring, or however we want to label it, which may or may not affect Palestine in the coming years, and (2) developments within Palestine itself, particularly the position of Hamas and what I see as a long-term trend in which it consolidates and even strengthens (though within limits, I think) its position as the dominant political force in Palestine.
About the first, what’s very striking is the fact that even in the countries where the transitions have been greatest—such as in Egypt and Tunisia, where the overthrow of their presidents-for-life was relatively swift and painless—the process is at best in the early stages. We are just now getting into the serious business of fundamental struggles over power, legitimacy, symbolism, institutions, and I think we’re in for a very long ride. Even in cases like Egypt, where there is an institutional legacy, the idea of a state, and certain limits and modes of interaction that are observed—even there, I think, there will be some very intense struggles. We already see the beginnings of these since Morsi assumed the presidency, with key institutional actors who may start to move from positions of passivity (the interior ministry, say, or the state civilian bureaucracy). There is also the army, which has never been entirely passive, but where we may see a long-term shift from a position of reluctance and grudging acceptance to a more active obstruction to the president and his political allies—the Muslim Brotherhood (and its Freedom and Justice Party) and the Salafist al-Nour party.So that’s an example of struggles that still lie ahead in places like Tunis, Syria, Yemen, Libya of course—and that’s just at the formal political and institutional level.
If you look at the socio-economic level, you have this massive social and economic crisis, deepening problems of unemployment, marginality of the underclass, the urban poor versus the middle class, and so on. All these divisions are important, but against the backdrop of the immense economic challenges of dealing with debt, future problems of catching up with lost opportunity, and then actually struggling to compete in the region, international markets, attracting foreign direct investment, and so on—it’s overwhelming, and success is by no means assured. All these countries will be totally bogged down in these kinds of struggles for years to come—I would say that five years is very much the short term, during which we may see either serious political crises and/or new rounds of elections that could lead to the defeat of some of these “mainstream,” or moderate, Islamist parties, in some cases producing new hybrids or new governing coalitions.
Given all this, the willingness and ability of any of these states to focus in any meaningful way on Palestine is extremely limited.
The most likely case of any involvement is Egypt. It has a short border with Palestine (Gaza) and long border with Israel. There’s a lot of popular sympathy for the Palestinians in the country, and of course a natural affinity between the Muslim Brotherhood, which now appears to be Egypt’s dominant party, and Hamas. On the other hand, it has become clear since Morsi assumed the presidency that it is far from certain that he would want any significant change with regard to Gaza. And whatever his actual preferences may be, the armed forces, in particular, are extremely reluctant to change the status quo. Regardless of who’s in power, the Egyptian authorities have proven to be very cautious, conservative, supportive of the status quo, with minor modifications, on issues relating to the border with Gaza, relations with Hamas, opening up trade, and so on. I do think there’s scope for considerable improvement in terms of movement of goods and so on—fuel and energy, etc.—across the Egypt and the Sinai-Gaza border. But, strategically, I don’t think Egypt can significantly realign itself on the Palestine issue. I also doubt this would be a source of strain domestically, again because of all the negative socio-economic indicators mentioned. So I really don’t see how Egypt can do much more.
A quick word with regard to Syria, which besides bordering Israel has long-term involvements with the Palestinian movement and its various groups, including Hamas. Most people in Syria, including across the opposition spectrum, are very suspicious of the United States and ready to see an Israeli agenda behind everything. The commitment to Palestine is often mentioned in statements of the opposition, and in general Palestine is mentioned far more frequently, say, than in Libya and Tunisia. In Syria, I think, commitment to Palestine is still very deep, but what that translates into can’t be guessed. I also wouldn’t make any simplistic assumptions that the rise of Salafism, Islamism, Jihadism, and so on would translate into any particular foreign policy position on Palestine.
Syria of course is going to have an even messier and more complex long-term transitional process—assuming the bloodshed actually stops—but in the longer term, because of its proximity to Lebanon and Jordan, where there are significant Palestinian refugees communities, and because Syria itself has a sizeable Palestinian refugee community, its involvement in Palestine will be different from Egypt’s. For Egypt, the Palestine issue has always been a strategic issue, whereas for Syria, Palestine enters into their social and ideological construct in other ways. In any case, should a new power or coalition emerge in Syria, however messily, and if it is, let’s say, sympathetic to Islamism, then Hamas is likely to benefit more than the PA structure with Mahmud Abbas. In general, insofar as the long-term trend for Hamas is still upward, and the Arab Spring can be seen as having eased its isolation, it could have prospects for several significant new partners and associates in the region.
JM: It seems that throughout the region the role of the so-called moderate Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, is becoming paramount in all these places. It’s clearly the key player in the Syrian opposition, as in all these situations, not necessarily because they are a majority force, because they’re more coherent, cohesive, more organized.
What I’m wondering is whether we can draw conclusions about the Brotherhood’s relationship with the secular, liberal, democratic forces on the one side and the Salafists on the other: with which do they have more in common? Clearly they’re not very keen on the Salafists. Do they see Turkey as a model? In any case these relationships are obviously going to be very crucial and will affect Hamas and the whole configuration of the region.
But given the likelihood of decades of turmoil ahead, with all these regimes held in place for decades by the mukhabarat, and suddenly all these dams breaking at the same time, I think we’re in for what I call “necessary chaos” for quite some time. Questions of legitimate representation will need to shake out and new governments will have to figure out their policies, while their publics become more used to the idea of not having a dictator telling them what to think and do.