By Marwan Muasher, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, 04 March 2021


A recent survey of experts on the region indicates a shift in views that Arab decisionmakers cannot ignore.

 

Recently, the prominent researchers Shibley Telhami, of the University of Maryland, and Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor, published a major poll examining the future of the Middle East. They surveyed 521 experts on the region, 71 percent of them based in the United States and the rest living elsewhere. Among the issues covered was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab Spring uprisings.

Perhaps the most striking takeaway was how the experts saw the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A majority, 52 percent, said that a two-state solution was no longer viable, while 42 percent said it could be achieved, but not within the next decade. The more important finding was how these mostly U.S.-based experts viewed the political situation in Israel and the occupied territories. Fully 59 percent described the status quo there as that of a one-state reality akin to apartheid, while 7 percent described it as a one-state reality with inequality, but that could not be compared to apartheid.

Anyone familiar with the political sensitivities of U.S. institutions can understand the courage needed for a U.S.-based expert to describe Israel’s system as it is: a racist, apartheid regime. When asked about the most likely scenario if a two-state solution were no longer possible, 77 percent predicted a one-state reality akin to apartheid.

These expectations have major political implications for the Arab world. They show that the two-state solution is no longer seen as a viable option by a majority of American academics, who tend to provide a bellwether for where U.S. policy might head. Realistically, and with no disrespect to the aspirations of Arabs, a political debate limited to the two-state solution and unaccompanied by any major effort to make that solution a reality, simply gives Israel a green light to absorb more land and make such a solution impossible.

Arab decisionmakers must think imaginatively if they are to prevent what these experts regard as the most likely scenario. Lip service to the two-state solution will not prevent such an eventuality, but must be accompanied by efforts to bolster Palestinians as they remain on their land and demand their rights. Insisting on the form of the state will not change anything if the state is devoid of meaning. It is no secret that a Palestinian state without East Jerusalem as its capital, without control over the Jordan Valley, that does not guarantee a right of return, the removal of Israeli settlements, and full sovereignty over its territory, would be unacceptable for the new generation of Palestinians, a majority of whom were born after the Oslo Accords.

The other topic of the survey was the fate of the Arab Spring uprisings. Here again, the responses merit the attention of Arab decisionmakers. Of the experts consulted, 46 percent agreed that these uprisings had not ended but were continuing in some form or another. Another 30 percent said that they had temporarily halted, but would likely resume at some point in the coming decade. Only 7 percent of respondents believed they had definitively ended.

Looking toward the coming decade and the impact of these revolts on Arab politics, 29 percent of those surveyed said the uprisings were transformational, while 54 percent said they had an important impact but did not fundamentally change the region. Only 17 percent saw them as temporary disturbances with a limited impact.

The traditional Arab political orders had previously adopted the mantra that the Arab uprisings of 2011 had ended—that is, until a second wave of revolts broke out in 2019 in Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, and Lebanon. While the regimes in those countries were momentarily able to rein in this second wave, it is logical to expect third, fourth, and fifth waves, or more, until the underlying causes of the revolts have been addressed—good governance and higher living standards.

Arab decisionmakers need to recognize that the region is undergoing multiple transformations, not least the emergence of a new generation of young people with a different view of the world. The Arab political order has for decades been unable to adapt to developments in the region and the rise of the young. Yet the young now represent a majority of the Arab population and are demanding new approaches and policies, as well as participation in the policymaking process.

For now, decisionmaking in the Arab world is characterized by monotony, even inertia. Yet our world is changing quickly, while Arab political systems are responding slowly. No good can come of Arab regimes that are clinging to yesterday’s solutions in order to resolve today’s problems. What is needed is to think outside the box, not just because this will allow for innovation but because the box itself is no longer appropriate. It won’t contain the aspirations of a new generation of Arabs that will not remain silent, whether on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or on conditions in the Arab world.

 

 

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