The last few months have demonstrated how popular uprisings can bring about change in the Middle East. The transformation underway in the region has already affected Palestine by facilitating reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, but the impact could grow in the coming months. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of Executive Committee of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and an elected Palestinian Legislative Council official, discussed the implications of the Arab Spring for Palestine and the search for peace in the Middle East. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated.

Root causes of a changing regional landscape

Ashrawi identified several catalysts for the cascade of political reforms underway in the Arab world, and stressed that the current transformation is irreversible.

  • Demographic trends: A demographic phenomenon known as the “youth bulge” produced a large generation of socially conscious and politically frustrated young people who had grown increasingly impatient with the authoritarian status quo, Ashrawi said.

  • Blatant corruption: Increased scrutiny from the media and civil society exposed the blatant corruption and injustice of clientelistic, undemocratic regimes that used the backing of foreign sponsors to repress their own people. The uprisings that began in Tunisia and Egypt were an expression of popular demands for more transparent and accountable leadership, Ashrawi noted.

  • Indignity and humiliation: For decades, the dignity of Arab citizens had been insulted by leaders who monopolized political power and perpetrated glaring human rights abuses. Equally humiliating was the inability of Arab states to confront Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The uprisings that erupted in January were largely driven by demands for human dignity and self-respect, according to Ashrawi.

Implications of Palestinian reconciliation

On May 4, Hamas, Fatah, and other Palestinian factions signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo, signaling their willingness to form a national unity government comprised of independent technocrats that will pave the way for general elections in 2012. By bringing an end to the rivalry that had prevented Palestinian leaders from confronting the Israeli occupation as a unified force, the agreement has opened a limited window of opportunity for progress on the peace process, Ashrawi said.

  • Growing Palestinian unity: On May 15, protesters in Gaza and the West Bank were joined by Palestinian diaspora communities in an unprecedented wave of solidarity protests commemorating the “Nakba,” or the anniversary of Israel’s establishment, Ashrawi said. The demonstrations, fueled by the positive outcome of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks and a newfound sense of empowerment and confidence among Palestinians, revealed a new level of cohesion and commitment to achieving key demands, including UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, a freeze on Israeli settlement construction, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

  • A limited window of opportunity: The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas has presented a unique and time-sensitive opportunity for progress toward achieving a settlement with Israel. Palestinian leaders had been using the internal schism to justify their inability to confront the occupation with a unified strategy, but a national unity government will enjoy enhanced leverage and negotiating power, according to Ashrawi.

  • No more excuses: In response to the Palestinian reconciliation, Israeli leaders were quick to rule out negotiations with Hamas, which they seek to portray as “the Palestinian equivalent of al-Qaeda,” Ashrawi said. But this argument ignores key terms of the Cairo agreement, which paves the way for a national unity government comprised of political independents who are driven not by partisan or ideological loyalties, but rather by the need to meet popular demands for better governance and essential services, she noted. A truly democratic process must permit the participation of all political forces, Ashrawi said. “Hamas belongs within a pluralistic system, not as an alternative to it,” she added. 

  • A call for U.S. action: According to Ashrawi, U.S. political advisors are concerned that resuscitating the stalled peace process before the 2012 campaign might jeopardize President Obama’s reelection prospects, but Washington cannot afford to wait until 2012 to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table, she said. “Either you move quickly and conclude peace or lose the opportunity,” Ashrawi said.

  • Next steps for Palestinian leadership: With the reconciliation agreement paving the way for elections in 2012, Ashrawi said that Palestinian leaders must move quickly to form a representative government capable of addressing urgent challenges: the need for humanitarian relief and reconstruction in Gaza; comprehensive reform of the state security apparatus, which must be depoliticized and subject to executive oversight; and securing UN recognition of Palestinian statehood as a means of access to the multilateral institutions and international legal mechanisms that can protect the rights of Palestinians.

Future trends and challenges 

Popular uprisings in the Middle East have reconfigured the regional balance of power and destabilized traditional alliances. Although emerging democracies will be preoccupied with the domestic challenges of institution building and economic recovery, they are also likely to revise their foreign policies in response to pro-Palestinian public opinion, Ashrawi said.

  • A challenging but positive transition: Political changes of the magnitude currently taking place in the Middle East “are by definition painful and the outcome is not certain,” Ashrawi said. As new and inexperienced political forces participate in increasingly open and pluralistic systems, it will take time for these emerging actors to articulate and achieve their political agendas. However, Ashrawi was confident that the regional revolutions have achieved “a definite break with the past” by shattering the barrier of fear that characterized authoritarian systems.

  • Evolving foreign policies: Emerging democracies will no longer be able to maintain outdated foreign policies that are inconsistent with mainstream public opinion. In countries such as Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s government ignored widespread opposition to normalization with Israel, new leaders in pursuit of legitimacy will be forced to accommodate popular demands for pro-Palestinian policies, Ashrawi noted.

  • Israel’s legitimacy crisis: Democratic movements in the Arab world have “exposed Israel’s undemocratic agenda,” Ashrawi said. For decades, Israel derived international support and legitimacy by claiming to be a lone democracy surrounded by antagonistic, authoritarian enemies. But when protests broke out in Egypt, Israel urged the United States to protect Mubarak’s embattled regime, proving that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to preserving the regional status quo at all costs, and is deeply opposed to the removal of authoritarian leaders with whom he has cultivated alliances, she stated. As the hypocrisy of Israel’s position becomes increasingly apparent, it will become more difficult for its government to “maintain a system of domination that has no place in the contemporary realities of the Arab world,” Ashrawi said.