Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away, there once lived something called the Arab-Israeli peace process. It never lived an altogether happy life, but it did actually exist and breathe. In fact, it was capable of some spectacular highs (Egyptian-Israeli and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties) and a great many lows. More failures than successes, to be sure, but there was—at least most of the time—a real sense of hope and possibility and a credible process worth pursuing.
What's more, through most of this period—from roughly the 1970s into the new millennium—there was a semblance of control and order. That is to say, leaders made decisions in a region they believed they could actually shape and control. Likewise, while the peace process was always influenced by regional events, it still seemed insulated from them. The Egyptian-Israeli peace process succeeded even in the face of the turbulence of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
All of that's gone now. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict sits like a provincial tribal dispute between galactic events that dominate the headlines and shape the region’s politics: Egypt, the Iranian nuclear issue and civil war in Syria cause regional actors to worry, plan and even at times to act. What Israeli journalist Meron Benvenisti once dubbed the shepherd's war between Israelis and Palestinians seems all but lost, if not forgotten.
In four decades of watching this region, never have I seen a period that's more confusing, uncertain and characterized by more parts—all moving at the same time. Nor have I witnessed a phase of the Arab-Israeli peace process in which its future seems more dependent on regional events. Change and uncertainty—even violent change—can produce breakthroughs and alter the calculations of the Arabs and Israelis alike (see the 1973 war, the 1990–1991 Gulf War or the first intifada).
What's so intriguing (and depressing) about the current turmoil and turbulence is that it seems far more likely to retard rather than advance the process of negotiations. In a process already crippled by the inability/unwillingness of Israelis and Palestinians to pay the price for a deal and an absence of real urgency, regional realities are likely to be a further drag. And here's why.
As the largest and most important Arab state, as Egypt goes on the Israeli-Palestinian issue so goes the rest of the Arab world. And it's likely that the Egyptian revolution—really more a transactional competition for power between the military/old guard and the Islamists than a transformational event—will be a very long movie preoccupying Egypt with its own internal house for some time to come.
The Palestinian issue will continue to resonate, but in a way that is more conducive to conflict than to accommodation. Public opinion—now increasingly more important—will become more critical of Israel and U.S. support for it. Indeed, the Egyptian political arena will now own the peace with Israel in a way it never had before. And while the military will ensure that the letter of the peace treaty is respected, the spirit will get much colder. Security in Sinai, Hamas and Gaza, Israeli settlements and building in Jerusalem will become even more hot-button issues. And the Israelis are unlikely to become more flexible on making concessions to Palestinians if the relationship with Egypt heads south. Egypt is the great legitimizer of Israel's peace policy—the only successful example of returning land for a peace treaty, however cold from both sides' perspective. The more uncertainty on the Egypt front, the less likelihood of progress elsewhere.
It's been my view for some time now that Benjamin Netanyahu will not make meaningful decisions on Israeli-Palestinian peace so long as there's no clarity on the Iranian nuclear issue. The argument that making progress with the Palestinians might actually weaken Iran in the region has never appealed to him. No, it's actually reverse linkage at work. Iran with a nuclear weapon is Israel's greatest strategic threat. There's unlikely to be real clarity on the nuclear issue, let alone resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue, anytime soon. As a result, Israel will be less willing to be flexible on the core issues such as Jerusalem and borders.
Whatever progress may be possible on the Israeli-Palestinian issue must also take into account the possibility that sometime in the next year, Israel or the United States might exercise a military option against Iran. Conflict unrelated to the Arab-Israeli issue can actually lead to progress (see the first Gulf War and the Madrid peace conference). But it's hard to imagine that an attack on Iran won't keep the region boiling for some time to come and keep any hope of progress on the peace process futile.
During the 1990s—the last decade in which we could attest to a real peace process (and keep a straight face)—Arab leaders played a critical role. Mubarak, Assad, King Hussein, Arafat, and Morocco's Hassan may have been authoritarians, but they also had enough credibility and legitimacy to cut deals with Israel and the United States, or at least try.
That's all over for now. Forget good strong leaders. The Arab world is bereft even of bad strong ones. And this may well be the story for some time to come. The kind of leaders who could cover the painful concessions Palestinians may have to make, or could press and reach out to the Israelis to get them to do their fair share, just don't exist now. Nor does the United States have ready-made Arab partners with whom it can plan and strategize.