Arab Spring Added Pressures to Middle East Peace Process

The popular uprisings had subtle effects beyond the violence and regime changes.

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The impact of the Arab Spring has been obvious in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, where popular uprisings forced longtime leaders out of power, or in Syria and Yemen where ruling governments continue bloody campaigns against their countries' own people. But in the rest of the Middle East region, the effects have been more subtle, though not insignificant, as leaders hedge to hang onto their own power.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, King Abdullah announced Sunday that women will be allowed to vote and run for the first time ever in municipal elections in 2015, a symbolic change in a nation that retains its monarchy and where women are still forbidden basic rights like driving. The Arab Spring protests also put added pressure on leaders from Israel and Palestine as they consider the changing context of the region and what it means for the path to peace.

For leaders like King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the Arab Spring was an alarm bell, says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director and fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, an extension of the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy in Qatar. "It was a wake-up call to the international community that people can take things on their own, and they will not be waiting for the leaders forever to make decisions for change," he says. "Change can happen from the bottom up."

[See political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]

There's no doubt, Sharqieh says, that the recent announcement in Saudi Arabia was brought on by this renewed awareness. Recent top-down tactical reforms in other nations, like Morocco, Algeria, and Jordan, may also stem from popular pressures. "Now is the right time to change or you will be on the wrong side of history, that's for sure. The Saudis realized this," Sharqieh says.

Abbas, who addressed the United Nations last week to request statehood status for Palestine, seems to have reached the same conclusion, according to Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. "You saw the Palestinians looking around the region, looking at Egypt and Tunisia, saying, 'Hey, that could be us too. What the hell are our leaders doing?'" Katulis says. "The most pressure right now is on Abbas to do anything, get anything, which is why he declared this Palestinian Spring. He's trying to claim the mantle or co-opt or head off any sort of popular discontent."

Palestinians greeted Abbas with cheering and praise when he returned from the UN on Monday. Although the United States has promised to veto Palestinian statehood, Abbas's gesture at the UN seemed to assert Palestine's status among other world nations. "We have told the world that there is the Arab Spring, but the Palestinian Spring is here," he said, according to the Associated Press. "A popular spring, a populist spring, a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal."

Despite his optimism, the Middle East Quartet, which includes the United States, Russia, the UN, and the European Union, is pushing the Palestinians and Israelis to engage in direct negotiations "without delay or preconditions" as an alternative to their UN plea for statehood. Abbas has made clear that he will not negotiate if Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank, which the Palestinians consider to be their land. But if stalemate continues in the peace process, Abbas could face internal repercussions, Katulis says. "You can only contain the political aspirations of the Palestinian people for so long," he says.

[Read about the challenges for Libya's new leaders.]

For Israel, the Arab Spring also brought new pressures as the region's political landscape became more uncertain. When Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarek fell earlier this year, for instance, many in Israel feared that its long-standing peace agreement with Egypt would also be lost. Egypt's current leaders have since promised to keep obligations to Israel, but with Egypt's future unknown, its relationship with Israel could prove to be equally tentative. Similar unknowns exist regarding Israel's relationships with the Arab world as a whole, according to Josh Muravchik, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies' Foreign Policy Institute.