Transitions in the Middle East: Consequences for the Peace Process, the Regional State System and on Israel

April 30, 2013, Prague

The closed discussion, under the Chatham House Rule, was held on April 30, 2013 in the Hotel InterContinental Prague. The topic of the discussion was transitions in the Middle East and their impact on both the regional state system and on Israel.
The discussion began with a keynote speech by a distinguished Israeli academic, focusing on the recent developments in the Arab world and offering perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The speaker suggested an improved term for the Arab Spring – “the Arab Awakening,” hinting at the fact that this was the first time that Arab regimes were being challenged by popular uprisings.
However, this has not been a universal trend – mass public demonstrations took place opposing the military dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, but not in traditional monarchies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco. It was argued that the aspect of religion is important in legitimizing the monarchy as the king is claimed to be the descendant of the prophet, but this legitimacy is missing in the dictatorships. Nevertheless, the dictatorships do not follow a deterministic path, and some will probably maintain power.
The speaker also stressed the importance of the tradition of civil society for the formation of democracy. The strongest civil society network in Egypt under Mubarak was the Muslim Brotherhood, and their election victory mirrored that. Still, it remains to be seen whether in 5 years Egypt will be more like the Czech Republic and Poland or more like Russia.
Furthermore, the speaker argued that the outcome of these events will perhaps not only be regime change, but possibly a new chapter in reordering the state system in the Middle East. It was noted that the present borders of Syria and Iraq are not historical entities like Egypt, but imperial inventions after the First World War. The outcome of the civil war may not be a unified Syria, but a breakup of Syria and the drawing of new borders. This has already happened in Iraq and Sudan, and the difficulties in Libya also stem from the a-historicity of Libya as a coherent entity (originally set up by the Italians).“When you open up the lid on authoritarian regimes, a lot of historically subdued forces come up,” noted the speaker comparing the situation to Yugoslavia. Also, the fact that no leader has been identified with the revolution – “no Havel, no Gorbachev” – who could unite and possibly prevent the breakup of Syria is a certain weakness.
One delegate asked about the possible role of Turkey in influencing the events in the Middle East. It was argued that the Turkish model is very different from Egypt or Syria. The combination of moderate Muslim discourse and the imperial Ottoman tradition made democracy in Turkey easier. However, even though Arab nationalism and Islam are overlapping, they are not identical.
The discussion also focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the attempts to find a formula for a future peace agreement. It was suggested that the biggest problems hindering the process as shown in previous negotiations under the Olmert government are the issue of borders, the future of settlements in the West Bank, the difficulty of making Jerusalem the capital of two states, Israeli security issues and making refugee status the fundamental basis for Palestinian nationality.
A participant asked about possible European Union assistance in relaunching the process. It was pointed out that there is difficulty in creating a common EU foreign policy, and insufficient focus on implementation may pose a problem. Also, “the EU can be a midwife, but not the father and the mother,” meaning that at the end of the day, the Israelis and Palestinians have to solve their issues themselves.
Nevertheless, the EU can be instrumental in bringing the parties together, focusing on what is doable and adopting a pragmatic, non-declaratory, under-the-radar approach. It is a lesson that the Obama administration has learned after initially hoping to solve the issue in two years and then failing to even bring the parties to the negotiating table. The administration is now looking for a formula that preserves the status quo, but that also addresses issues such as stopping the settlements in a quiet, unforced way. Similarly, it was noted that Syria will be a major foreign policy test for Obama as he must balance his statements of redlines for intervention while maintaining the credibility of the US.
The discussion was thematically linked to the upcoming annual Forum 2000 Conference on “Societies in Transitions” to be held September 15–17, 2013 in Prague.