Just when you thought the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was in the deep freezer, things are getting hot again. Hamas and Israel are back at each others' throats; and for the first time in four years, there's been a terror attack in Jerusalem, killing one Israeli. The bombing capped a week of Israeli-Palestinian confrontation, which resulted in a number of civilian deaths in Gaza. If I didn't know any better, I'd think that Israelis and Palestinians watching the historic changes in the Arab World just can't stand not to be the center of attention.
But I do know better. And this time around, precisely because of those transformative changes, it's going to take something truly big -- either nasty or spectacular -- to put the Palestinian issue back on center stage. Because right now, despite the loss of life on both sides, it's still old hat. And here's why:
If the onset of the Arab spring (Egypt, Tunisia) and Arab winter (Bahrain, Libya, Yemen) suggest anything, it is that priorities have shifted away from external reference points -- Israel and the United States -- to the more authentic forces of internal processes of political change. I say this fully aware of the Libyan exception, where the United States and the international community is very much in the picture.
Something truly profound is playing out in Arab capitals and countrysides: a process of ownership, the regaining of control over the Arab story (and future) by Arabs themselves. And this process of self-determination will continue to play out for years to come, affecting those Arab polities which to date have largely escaped significant change. Colonialists and Zionists are unlikely to figure as prominently in the Arab story -- either as an excuse or justification.
The debate over the centrality of the Palestinian issue to regional stability and to U.S. interests has been argued in hot and heavy fashion for years. Proponents of centrality have argued that there's no issue more resonant or more emotional in Arab politics; none more threatening to the viability of Israel or morally unfair to Palestinians; and certainly none more likely to radicalize Arabs and Muslims around the world.
Others have argued the opposite: that the sources of instability are deeper and broader, including turmoil within Islam, the Iranian challenge, a democracy deficit, and authoritarian regimes and extractive leaders who have bilked their public for years and kept them bottled up in a kind of Nasser time warp. Instead, they argue, the Palestinian issue has been used to distract and divert attention from meaningful reforms -- a cruel deceit to keep autocrats in power.