Is the old Middle East back?

On Sunday, for the first time since January 25, the Arab world's attention was riveted not on scenes of protesters castigating their own governments, but on much more familiar imagery: that of Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation.

For months, Palestinian and Arab activists had planned to mark May 15 -- Youm an-Nakba or "Day of the Catastrophe," which usually takes place the day after Israel's independence celebrations -- with a civilian march on the occupied territories. For Arabs, Nakba Day represents a day of mourning, a time to commemorate the expulsion during the 1948 war of Palestinians from their villages and homes, press for the right of refugees to return, and denounce the Jewish state.

In past years, Nakba Day has generally passed without much fanfare: demonstrations around the world and in Palestinian villages, occasional attempts to march on Israeli-held territory, met with force.

But this is 2011, and things were rather different on Sunday. In Lebanon, a group of hundreds of Palestinian refugees tried to stream across the border and were fired upon by both Israeli and Lebanese troops. Near the Erez crossing in Gaza, IDF soldiers fired on Palestinians seeking to cross into Israel. Near Ramallah in the West Bank, a large crowd battled tear-gas-wielding riot troops with rocks and Molotov cocktails. And in Syria, another large crowd swarmed over the fence along the disputed line that separates the two countries and made it into Majdal Shams, a Druze village in the Golan Heights, before being rounded up by the IDF. (Jordan and Egypt prevented smaller crowds from reaching the border.) Altogether, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and dozens more wounded by live fire, according to the New York Times.

Al Jazeera Arabic went large with its coverage, deploying a split screen to show the events live, while thousands more followed developments on Twitter using the #nakba tag. So did Syrian state television, happy to change the subject from the domestic demonstrations of the last few months. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah hailed the protesters, addressing them directly: "You are adamant to liberate your land no matter how many sacrifices you make and the fate of this [Jewish] entity is to fade." Hamas declared the onset of a third intifada; its leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, declared that changes sweeping the region would "lead to the collapse of the Zionist project in Palestine and victory for the program of the nation." Meanwhile, in Cairo, Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a large crowd demonstrating in front of the Israeli Embassy, arresting a number of well-known revolutionary Twitterati.

Somewhere in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad is smiling for the first time in weeks.

All of this sounds a bit like the old Middle East, doesn't it? Arabs raging impotently at the Jews instead of their own brutal rulers? And yet the narrative that the Arab revolutions were never about Israel has always been wrong, or at least incomplete. For Arabs living under authoritarian regimes, Israel (and America's support for Israel) has long been seen as an important reason for their subjugation. Nowhere is this more true than in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak bucked popular opinion by selling gas to Israel below market rates and enforced a widely reviled blockade of Gaza. In Tahrir Square, there were plenty of chants denouncing Mubarak as an Israeli and American agent, no matter what Thomas Friedman says.

Yet there is nothing impotent about Sunday's tactics, which put Israel and its American ally in an incredibly tough position. Whatever Assad's cynical motives for allowing and even encouraging the protesters to reach the Golan ("See, Bibi, you need me after all!"), Palestinians now have a powerful tool at their disposal, and there will no doubt be attempts to replicate the feat. As Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn puts it, "The nightmare scenario Israel has feared since its inception became real -- that Palestinian refugees would simply start walking from their camps toward the border and would try to exercise their ‘right of return.'"

Even more awkward for the United States, Netanyahu is due to visit Washington in a few days in what will likely be one long exposition of the words, "I told you so." If he is smart, he will announce a serious plan for peace and get out ahead of the most serious threat to Israel's security since the 1973 war. If he is true to form, he will use the opportunity to double down on his argument for the status quo.

President Obama has planned two speeches for the coming week: one for Thursday, billed as a disquisition on the Arab Spring, and another an address at the AIPAC conference. With George Mitchell's resignation, the peace process is officially dead. The Arab street now understands its power -- people clearly aren't going to sit around quietly waiting until September for the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The BDS movement ("boycott, divestment, sanctions") is gaining steam internationally. There will be more marches, more flotillas, more escalation, more senseless deaths.

What is Obama going to say now?

Jalaa Marey/JINI/Getty Images


The definition of insanity...

The headline on the home page of the New York Times -- "U.S. Mideast Envoy Resigns After 2 Years of Frustration" -- says it all. George Mitchell's departing note to the president is curt: 

When I accepted your request to serve as U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace my intention was to serve for two years. More than two years having passed I hereby resign, effective May 20, 2011. I trust this will provide sufficient time for an effective transition.

I strongly support your vision of comprehensive peace in the Middle East and thank you for giving me the opportunity to be part of your administration. It has been an honor for me to again serve our country.

What's amazing is not Mitchell resigned, but that he hung in there so long. As my colleague Josh Rogin reports, Mitchell has long been marginalized: The Israelis weren't interested in meeting him, and his own ostensible colleague in the White House, longtime peace-processor Dennis Ross, developed his back channel to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (In typical fashion, Israel and Palestinian officials took the opportunity to blame each other for Mitchell's failure.)

This is usually the point in an article about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where the author offers up an alternative strategy for advancing peace, but unfortunately I don't have one. The peace process has long been a charade -- a cowardly game of inches and incrementalism -- because none of the three parties to the dispute dares take any political risks. Most Israelis seem happy with the status quo, and the settlers' bloc has expanded to the point where its power may be impossible to check. Bibi Netanyahu has written an entire, tedious book explaining why he doesn't believe in a two-state solution, and takes every opportunity to exploit to the other side's obstructionism, divisions, and weakness. The Palestinian Authority is led by Mahmoud Abbas, a dumpy, charmless Fatah party functionary who has international support but close to zero street legitimacy; Hamas controls Gaza and has yet to admit the abject failure of its violent strategy. The Israeli and Palestinian publics still have vastly different expectations on sensitive issues like Jerusalem and the right of return, and the current political leadership on both sides has made no effort to prepare the ground for concessions. Peace seems as far away as ever.

The one bright spot is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has put his head down and built functioning institutions to the point where one of the many arguments made in favor of the Israeli occupation -- that Palestinians just aren't ready to run their own country -- is no longer so credible. But Fayyad is not popular domestically, either, and he may become a casualty of the recent Fatah-Hamas unity deal, a move that would spook the international donors that would keep any nascent Palestinian state afloat. The U.S. Congress is already making rumblings about cutting off aid.

All of this comes months ahead of Abbas's September deadline for declaring independence, a move that will put him in direct disagreement with the United States just as the 2012 campaign begins to hit up. European countries have signaled quietly that they might break with Washington and recognize Palestine, and frankly at this point I think many Americans would welcome the idea, because nothing else seems to work. Barack Obama will likely give a speech in August signaling his "deep commitment" to Middle East peace, but there is no chance whatsover that he'll make any bold or creative moves in election season. According to Yahoo's Laura Rozen, he's not even planning to raise the Arab-Israeli issue during next Thursday's big speech on the Middle East.

So the floor will be clear for Netanyahu, who meets with Obama next week and is due to address Congress on Tuesday, May 24. If past is prologue, we can expect Bibi to bamboozle: offer just enough movement to seem reasonable but not enough to actually induce the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. And why not? There's very little pressure on him domestically to cut a deal, and he knows that little pressure will be forthcoming from Washington, especially given the risk that one Hamas leader or another will pop off and say something crazy.

Perhaps the abject failure of U.S. peacemaking efforts to date will encourage other folks -- I'm looking at you, Nabil El-Araby -- to come forward with creative solutions. But I wouldn't bet more than a few sheckels on it.