The bomb attack on a bus in Jerusalem this week killed one woman and wounded 24 people. The casualties were not high compared with similar bombings in the city over the last 20 years. I lived off the Jaffa Road for four years in the mid-1990s when bus bombings were common. I used to walk to look at the smoldering carcass of the latest bus to be hit, its metal panels bulging out from the force of the explosion. The latest bombing is having more impact than its predecessors because it is the first in Jerusalem for seven years. It comes just as there is an increase of violence between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank and in and around Gaza. None of this might have serious repercussions except that these incidents are happening just as the political landscape of the Arab world is being radically transformed to a degree that has not happened for half a century.
Suppose the uprisings across the Middle East had happened five years ago: Israel could not have been certain of the inaction of Arab leaders as it launched two limited wars. The Israeli bombardment and ground invasion of Lebanon in 2006 created a furious popular reaction in the region. But this did not much matter because power among Israel’s neighbours was in the hands of kings and presidents who covertly hoped that the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon would be destroyed or crippled.
The same thing happened during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-9 when Israel launched a three week-long air and land bombardment of Gaza which killed at least 1,200 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died during the conflict. Throughout, the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cooperated with Israel, in sealing off Gaza from the outside world. The political cost to Israel and the US was not high because condemnation by the “Arab street” – that patronizing and dismissive term that encapsulates the media’s contempt for the Arab public – did not count.
This is not going to happen again in quite the same way. No wonder the Israeli establishment was aghast as it watched Mubarak being gradually forced from power. Israeli leaders bad-mouthed Barack Obama for not supporting the Egyptian leader more effectively. Egypt is not going to abrogate its peace treaty with Israel, but it is likely to react more forcefully than in the past to Israeli actions of which ordinary Egyptians disapprove.
Previous political calculations about the outcome of Israeli actions in the Middle East have all changed over the past three months. States like Egypt will no longer be politically neutered by being wholly under the control of a decrepit and unpopular ruler who was not going to go against US wishes. That said, the degree of change is still unclear. Elites that got rid of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt and possibly, in the next few weeks, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, are doing so in order to make sure that uprisings do not turn into real revolutions.
The US has much the same aim. But it may not be able to achieve this if, in future, its tolerance of Israeli colonization of the West Bank remains automatic. It has to grapple with the fact that in Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan – together with Saudi Arabia the three Muslim countries that matter most to the US – an average of 17 per cent of people view US policies favorably, according to a poll by the Pew Research Centre.
Democratization in the Middle East was always going to produce governments that the US and Israel would not like. Under George W Bush the neo-cons avoided this problem by self-deception. They imagined that an election in Iraq would produce a government to their liking. When there was a poll in 2005 it produced a majority for the Shia religious parties with links to Iran.
A carefully monitored parliamentary election in the West Bank and Gaza, a year later, shocked Washington when Hamas won a majority over Fatah, until then the corrupt and ineffective political voice of the Palestinians. In Turkey, successive elections have seen the mildly Islamic AKP party stop the army, which staged four coups in the second half of the 20th century, being the ultimate source of authority in the state.
The Palestinians will also be affected by the Arab awakening. Yasser Arafat was never able to create more than the Palestinian equivalent of a Bantustan in Gaza and the West Bank in the wake of the Oslo Accords because of relentless Israeli pressure, increased settlements and international isolation. But another reason was that the quasi-state he created was a replica of those in the Arab world. It had a corrupt self-serving elite, a bloated patronage machine, and brutal security services that enforced allegiance to the government. At one moment it had 70,000 men under arms but proved incapable of defending its territory from Israeli incursions.
How does all this affect Israel? At first perhaps not very much: many Arab states are in only the first stage of democratic transformation. Egypt may be absorbed in domestic power struggles for years to come. But in the longer term, it will become clearer that Israel may have passed up its best chance of reaching an agreement with the Palestinians in the decades after the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Instead, Israel used the period when it no longer had to face any military threat from Egypt to invade Lebanon, which it made a lengthy but abortive attempt to dominate. The uprisings have been primarily secular, which would seem to cut the ground from under Hamas’s feet. But this may not be entirely to Israel’s advantage because the existence of Hamas and Hezbollah made it easy to demonize Palestinian resistance to occupation. The Israelis also have a suspicion that parties like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have not necessarily become weaker but its leaders are playing a cannier game by allying themselves with secular groups.
The Jerusalem bombing and the increased violence in Gaza are not in themselves going to produce a new crisis, but they are a reminder that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle remains at the centre of Middle East politics. So far, there is no sign that Israeli leaders have much idea about how to cope with the swirling political currents that are reshaping the region in which they live. Amid all the optimism about the spread of democracy the, struggle retains its capacity to return the region to conflict and war.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq