Nothing, it seems, is quite what it seems. If even illustrious experts spectacularly failed to foresee the seismic shifts engulfing the Arab world, how is the ordinary observer supposed to make sense of events? How may we distinguish fact from fiction, wheat from chaff, real value from face value?
Turning to the political class for answers is no panacea, for insight and prescience are hardly their strong suits, either. Take Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: no sooner had he boasted "there is only one country in the whole of the Middle East that has no troubles, no protests - that's Israel," than his country's social protest movement erupted beneath him.
The leaders of other professed democracies were similarly caught off guard when tent cities started to mushroom in one advanced capitalist state after another, railing against social and economic injustices. If the uprisings in the Arab world were a response to decades of oppressive autocratic misrule, the escalating protests in the Western world were a product of a deepening democratic deficit, brought sharply to a head by years of financial recklessness.
The common link was the voice of the powerless (the "99 %") demanding a consequential say in their destinies. If Western politicians initially thought their societies would act as templates for the Arab world of the future, their own revolting citizens soon put paid to such a smug assumption.
The misnamed "Arab Spring," heavy with both hope and danger, is, in reality, impersonating all four seasons, as events twist and turn, and rock and roll. In countries where the ruling powers seem geared up to battle it out to the bitter end - Syria being the leading contender at present - the joys of spring look set to give way to a truly ferocious winter.
But there is no clear pattern. Even if the grievances of the Arab street are similar across the region, the contexts are different in each country. It is hardly surprising, therefore, if the rebellions - and the responses they provoke - take divergent paths. What does seem clear, though, is that the region as a whole, in one way or another, will continue to simmer for some years to come.
Unlike the upheavals in Eastern Europe in 1989 that, in the main, aimed to transform their despotic governances into Western Europe-style liberal democracies, the Arab uprisings seem not to have very clear models to emulate. But the genies of free expression, basic rights and popular accountability, lubricated by the new social media, have escaped their bottles, and no future authority, whatever its political make-up, will easily be able to squeeze them back in. To this extent, the old has already given way to the new across the Arab world, even if there is a long, hazardous, uncertain journey ahead.
Regional Reaction to Syria
The decision of the Arab League to suspend and impose sanctions on Syria - officially for violently suppressing internal dissent - is not quite what it seems either. While the sudden concern for human rights by a slew of Arab autocracies is touching, it is more than a little suspect given the well-documented repressiveness of many of the censorious regimes - which include such models of liberty as Sudan, whose president has been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur, and Saudi Arabia, whose troops played a decisive part in helping neighboring Bahrain to ruthlessly crush its Pearl Revolution.
So, if not outrage at the violence, what then explains the stance of the Arab League members? That Bahrain is a Shia-majority country governed by Sunni rulers may offer a clue. The Saudi fear is not only that the Bahraini uprising could spread to the Saudi kingdom's oil-rich Eastern Province, home to the country's Shia minority, but that lurking menacingly in the shadows is its deadly rival Iran, ready to exploit any opportunity to its favor.
Already, following the United States-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, the nature of Iran's relationship with Iraq had been transformed from deep hostility to cordiality, and it is surely no coincidence that the two Arab League members which did not support sanctions against Iran-allied Syria - apart from Syria itself - were the Shia-led Iraqi government and the government of Lebanon, dominated by the Shia militia group Hizbullah.
The pattern that emerges is one of Sunni Arab alarm about growing Iranian Shia influence over a vast arc of land over the roof of Saudi Arabia, embracing Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Straddling the arc from above is overwhelmingly Sunni Turkey, which has thrown its considerable weight behind the measures targeting Assad's Syria, further burying its earlier "zero problems with neighbors" policy.
What better way to break the arc than to replace the Alawite-minority Syrian regime with a Sunni-majority government that embraces the broader anti-Iran Arab consensus? Such an aim chimes with the belated overt calls by the leaders of Jordan and Turkey for President Assad to step down.
The overthrow of the Assad regime would allow Iranian influence to be curtailed and would be likely to attract the support of the U.S., whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, and other Western governments, while leaving Israel to ponder over the Syrian devil it knows. Alas, none of this has anything to do with protecting human rights or curbing violence.
The Iranian Perspective
The other side of this coin is, of course, Iran itself, widely regarded as a belligerent power run by an unhinged leadership. Its drive to seek nuclear-weapons capability is seen from within an already destabilized region as deeply threatening and liable to spark off further proliferation. The widespread perception among Israelis is that it is aimed at their destruction.
The Iranian president's provocative Holocaust denial, flamboyant rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause, critical sponsorship of anti- Israel armed factions on Israel's borders and repeated dire threats against the Israeli state have all fed this fear. Is it any wonder the ordinary Israeli is jumpy? But, in reality, how credible are the threats? Again, should they be taken at face value? Seen through Iranian eyes, Iran has legitimate concerns of its own which may better explain its behaviour.
For one thing, it has good reason, as indicated, to fear regional isolation. For another, not a great distance away are the nuclear-armed states of Pakistan, India, Russia and China, to say nothing of Israel which, for its part, threatens Iran with a possible military strike, even if preemptively. Third, one of its neighbors, Iraq, a non-nuclear state, was invaded not many years ago by powers intent on regime change, while one of its allies, the nuclear-capable North Korea, has not been invaded despite being a fellow candidate for regime change.
Moreover, the U.S. and UK spy agencies have a record of conspiring to bring down an Iranian government when, in 1953, they organized a coup to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and restore the Shah to power. The conclusion begging to be drawn from all of this in Iranian minds is loud and clear.
Viewed in this way, a different purpose to that ascribed by others may be served by Iran posing as the chief defender of Palestinian rights and seeking to reach a nuclear threshold. While the fears of the Israeli people are more than understandable, the threats of the Iranian president may be more bluff than substance. The two countries, situated over a thousand kilometers apart, have no material disputes between them, such as over territory, population or natural resources, and Iran is undoubtedly aware of Israel's vastly superior nuclear armory - Iran has no nuclear weapons at present - including its second-strike submarine-based capability.
Would the government of any country seriously put everything at risk, not for any real potential gain, but for an ideological reason, to wit to promote someone else's cause? The Palestinians - who would be the victims of a nuclear strike on Israel no less than the Israelis - are mostly not taken in by Iran's faux support for their cause, and nor should Israelis be.
But the danger of the bluffing game is that, once the bluff is called, it could give rise to a self-fulfilling prophesy. A preemptive Israeli attack could spark off a counter-attack on Israeli territory, if only through the deployment of thousands of proxy Hizbullah missiles against Israeli cities, and on Israeli, Western and allied interests worldwide. Counter-counter attacks may then be unavoidable. Bedlam could soon give way to pandemonium.
There is an old adage along the lines of "just because I am paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get me." This pretty much sums up the nature of the Iran-Israel relationship, although the underlying affliction is by no means restricted just to these two countries. But paranoia, however well grounded, cannot be allowed to guide governmental policies if something like World War Three is to be avoided. Among the first casualties of open hostilities would be not just the Arab uprisings but social and political change everywhere, including in both Iran and Israel, as all governments play the patriotic card.
A New Approach to Negotiations
It hardly needs saying that the best way to call the Iranian bluff is for the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their conflict on the basis of the only framework - the two-state framework - that makes any sense, while retaining the prospect of a future Israeli-Palestinian confederation that would preserve the two national identities and essential zones of sovereignty, and possibly include Jordan, too. A principal obstacle, of course, to two states is that the state that already has its independence has for years been chomping away at the territory of the putative other, bit-by-bit reducing the size of the pie before any bargaining begins.
The Palestinian response - to refuse to negotiate for as long as these unilateral appropriations continue - seems, on the face of it, entirely justified. But whether it is wise is another matter, for it has allowed Israel to claim the moral high ground of an apparent willingness to enter talks without preconditions - a stand which has attracted the backing of several key western governments - while on the ground its bulldozers go on chiselling away.
If the Palestinians' alternative strategy of internationalizing the conflict by taking the United Nations route was primarily to secure full state membership in the world body, it has not only failed so far in this endeavour but the effort has triggered painful sanctions from both the U.S. and Israel toward both the Palestinian Authority and the UNESCO agency. In light of these setbacks, maybe it is time for the Palestinian leadership to reconsider this strategy and devise another approach that is flexible and astute enough to adapt to the inevitable zigzagging of international diplomacy and domestic politics.
However, to the extent that a hidden aspiration may have been to restore the Palestinians to center stage after they had been effectively sidelined by the uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world, it pretty much achieved this aim, at least for a while. Then again, if it was to boost Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's personal standing among fellow Palestinians, once again it proved successful, albeit temporarily. Could these have been the principal aims all along?
If so, their realization certainly had an important knock-on effect in the subsequent Israel-Hamas agreement that swapped the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, for more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, a deal that boosted the domestic standings of the Israeli prime minister and the Hamas leadership and that could have been sealed years before.
Behind the bluff on both sides of heroism and sacrifice - alongside genuine mass celebrations - lay an unspoken common goal of deflating Abbas's surge of popularity following his bravura UN performance. It had little to do with the welfare of the individuals concerned and nothing at all to do with advancing peace. Indeed, as a gesture to the other side, such moves are completely wasted if they are not tied in with a serious peace initiative and contribute to its momentum. How quickly the prisoner swap has faded from memory.
If not now, when?
In the final analysis, for as long as Israel persists with its prolonged and apparently indefinite occupation, almost everything that happens between Israelis and Palestinians is a form of shadow boxing, whereby what looks like a jab at one target is meant to land a blow at another. While the burgeoning "Occupy movement" in Europe and the Americas may reflect an authentic, growing mood at the grassroots level, echoing the stirrings in the Arab world and the rumblings among the Israeli youth, the Israeli occupation of Palestinians' lives and land does the very opposite. It is the antithesis of self-determination and increasingly is bound to be seen as anachronistic in a world - and certainly in a region - where the governed are less and less prepared to allow their lives to be shaped by the interests and whims of unaccountable others.
At this time of profound change, full of both opportunity and menace, if Israel fails to find a way to bring its occupation of Palestinian territory to a swift end, there is no prospect of the Jewish state being accepted into the region and becoming an integral part of its future. This is not a new observation - it has been around for decades - but, after 44 insufferable years, history is on the verge of assigning all hope in this regard to the trash can.
Israel's only argument against the charge that its discriminatory rule in the West Bank is tantamount to apartheid is that itis a temporary occupation that will shortly be brought to an end. If this is not its case, it doesn't have a case. But rather than suffer the apartheid stigma and invite a bitter civil rights struggle that, if successful, would end both Jewish and Palestinian statehood, Israel's leaders might choose unilaterally to annex large chunks of occupied territory on which Israeli settlements and surrounding infrastructure have been built and simultaneously to withdraw from and fence off the heavily populated Palestinian areas, leaving a non-viable rump entity vulnerable to enforced re-absorption into the Jordanian state. This scenario is a more likely alternative to two states than the fantasy of one unitary state.
Such an action, far from resolving the conflict, would deepen and entrench it and would almost certainly give rise to sustained international condemnation. Israel and its hapless citizens would be made to suffer the consequences of increasing isolation at every level. Jews around the world would probably not be immune to the effects either. For their part, the Palestinians would have suffered a heavy - maybe a mortal - blow to their quest for an independent state. Clearly, neither this outcome nor the apartheid alternative would be to their advantage any more than it would be to the Israelis.
The bottom line is that there is no lose-win or win-lose scenario in this conflict. It will be either lose-lose or win-win. Either both peoples will enjoy their places in the sun or neither will. So, if the Israelis do not take the initiative themselves to solve the conflict equitably and if the international community continues to sit on its hands, the harsh truth is that it is up to the weaker party - the long-suffering Palestinians - to drive things forward.
They could consider taking a bold lead by publicly issuing their realistic vision of the endgame, challenging the Israelis to do the same. Differences, where they cannot successfully be negotiated, could be adjudicated by the mediating powers - presumably, for want of an alternative, the Quartet of the U.S., UN, EU and Russia - and a robust enforcement mechanism could be put in place, comprising effective incentives and penalties along a fixed timetable calibrated to concrete targets.
To paraphrase an old rabbinical saying: If not now, when? And if not the Palestinians, then who? Time on the extended lease at the Last-Chance Saloon (see article by this writer in PIJ Vol. 15 No. 1 & 2, 2008) is almost up. What chance is there of all parties finally coming to their senses and grabbing the fast fading opportunity for a mutually acceptable peace agreement before the lease folds itself up in disgust and departs for good?