Why the Arab Uprisings Will Force the U.S. to Rethink Israel-Palestine

As the Arab Spring changes regional politics, American foreign policy will have to adapt.

arabspring march28 p.jpg

Protesters in Cairo pull down a concrete wall in front of the Israeli embassy to Egypt / Reuters

The Arab uprisings will require a fundamental reorientation of America's approach to the region. A good place to begin is to accept that Arabs are not stupid. They have long experience in decoding the propaganda of their own regimes and have a well-earned skepticism of virtually anything that the United States proposes. They understand America's place in the region, better than most Americans do, and have no patience with the pleasantries of American political discourse. Americans may believe that they can keep the same regional policies while winning over Arab publics. Arabs do not. They have a hypersensitivity to double standards, particularly on the Palestinian issue. Why do all peoples have the right to democracy except Palestinians, they ask, and why is there a responsibility to protect Libyans but not Gazans?

America also needs to take seriously the deep and fundamental linkages between issues. Many have advised American policy makers that there is no real relationship between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wider strategic issues in the region. This is nonsense. The unification of Arab political space and the crystallization of a new Arab collective narrative has ratcheted up the already real interconnections among issues in the region. The impact of one country's struggles on another's politics will grow. Core Arab issues like Palestine will be impossible to avoid -- but so will urgent new crises such as Syria's uprising. A case by case approach will not be enough.

More open and turbulent (if not necessarily democratic) politics will lead Arab publics to focus on distinct national concerns. But it would be wrong to assume that this will reduce the attention to broader regional issues. The uprisings in the Arab world rejected a status quo that America helped to maintain, and targeted leaders upon which America long relied. The Arab uprisings have imprinted on a rising generation the deep shared identity and narrative that had perhaps faded from the minds of their elders in the face of the dismal reality of Arab regime hypocrisy and competition.

Israel, for its part, is right to worry about the Arab uprisings. Its policies over the last decade, from the endless neglect of the peace process to its wars against Lebanon and Gaza, have left it more isolated than ever in the region, and its leaders have long since abandoned even the effort to engage Arab publics. The dictators with which it cultivated strong relations over the last decade are on the run, while the publics it alienated are ascendant. With little prospect of serious movement on the peace process any time soon, and hostile publics on the rise, Israel is likely to face ever greater regional isolation and less willing cooperation from regimes.

All of this means that a serious rethinking of America's relationship with Israel cannot be avoided. American support for Israel is bipartisan, deeply held, and unlikely to change any time soon. The United States should support Israel and help it as a real friend. America's ties to Israel are deep, at the societal level as well as at the military and intelligence levels, and for all the turbulence in the relationship friends should not be abandoned lightly.

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Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, as well as the Middle East Studies Program. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and writes regularly for Foreign Policy.

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