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The epicentre of the Arab spring isn’t Libya or Syria; it’s Palestine

Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Syria, rumblings in Morocco and Algeria (and eventually Saudi?) even spreading south into sub-Saharan Africa such as Uganda, but the centre of this upturning of the old despotic order is Palestine. The tectonic shift in the latter has been little noticed, but is more momentous than any of the others. Palestine for half a century has been in thrall to US-Israeli domination, but without riots in the streets or even a new intafada that is now changing dramatically. Even hardened cynics were shocked at how far the Palestinian negotiators accommodated the ever-increasing and ever more humiuliating Israeli demands. But a new page is now opening, the most hopeful for decades.

The last straw for President Mahmoud Abbas was Obama’s failure to face down Israel over extending a partial settlement moratorium. Rightly he opted to abandon US-sponsored negotiations with Israel. Then he forced a UN Security Council vote on the whole settlements issue, which exposed the US in vetoing it. Then he went down the route of seeking UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, contrary to the dictates of US policy. Finally, on behalf of Fatah he agreed to a unity and power-sharing deal with Hamas. This, if it holds, would negate the cornerstone of US and Israeli policy of splitting the Palestinian people into ‘moderates’ (pro-Western) and ‘extremists’ (Islamic). The implications of overcoming this lethal division are nothing less than dramatic.

Western interests of course view this development with extreme suspicion, not to say outright hostility. But actually there are good grounds for believing that in the long run all parties may benefit. Most obviously a more legitimate and genuinely representative PLO would regain an international stature and independent negotiating locus which it lost years ago, as well as providing a conduit for Hamas to engage in the political process.

Even if the US retaliates by reducing aid and withdraws security assistance, a more realistic basis will have been laid for obtaining Palestinian freedom, which was never the intention of US policy. Although the Americans will not admit it and may not even recognise it, the automatic reflex unconditional US support for Israel has for too long hamstrung US diplomatic manoeuvrability, and if the Arab spring has weakened the tight US grip over the Middle East, the greater freedom afforded to US policy worldwide could well work to the longer-term US interest.

Even Israel might be pushed into a more realistic and pragmatic negotiating posture rather than relying as hitherto on a false assumption of unchallengeable Middle East superiority, not least now that it has lost its strongest Arab ally with the fall of Mubarak. And that would be no bad thing, including for Israel.

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