The question now is not if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will change after the Arab uprisings began; the question is how it will. The issue is not whether the United States will engage in this changed wider Middle East; the issue is if it will be able to engage effectively, or not.
In Egypt, some things, of course, stayed very much the same. The new Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, has not broken the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and he is not going to. He might have withdrawn Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, but he’ll go back at some point, and the Israeli ambassador to Cairo has not been expelled. No war is on the horizon, partly because the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood have no real appetite for what it would mean for Egypt and its economy, and partly because the Egyptian military itself would veto it.
Within those parameters, however, Morsi might still have space to manoeuvre. This, however, takes for granted that he is essentially leading a response to the Israeli operation into Gaza. Morsi’s response is driven by an awareness that the Egyptian public demands action. In that regard, he is as much responding to the Israelis as to his own public. His dispatching of the Egyptian prime minister to Gaza is a message to the Egyptian public, perhaps more so than it is to the Israelis, or even the Palestinians. The message reads: I am not Hosni Mubarak, and your opinion matters.
That, in itself, is the product of Tahrir Square in 2011. With military options off the table, there are a number of things that Morsi has not done, which he may yet be pressed to do as a result of public pressure. Solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza can easily lead to normalisation of relations between Gaza and Egypt in terms of more open border controls and open trade arrangements—neither of which have taken place, even during this crisis.
At present, where protests exist, pro-Morsi forces within the Brotherhood will likely try to divert them into expressing support for Morsi’s actions of solidarity with Gaza, rather than allow them to turn into pressure rallies to force him to do much more—perhaps more than he can do. That will only work for so long, however, if the crisis in Gaza continues.
Morsi is thus left with three goals to achieve, none of which Egypt can realistically attain on its own: An end to Israeli attacks on Gaza; a Hamas that fills the security vacuum; and a process in motion that shows promise as the way to eventually end the Palestinian-Israeli, and wider Arab-Israeli, conflict. He cannot pursue that last need, which is the most critical for the long-term, on his own. Barack Obama, in his second term, cannot be absent if any real peace process is to ensue. Herein, however, lay further challenges. Israeli prime minster Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama have had awful relations in the first four years—and Netanyahu is likely to win Israeli elections in January. Morsi might need that peace process, but if he is unable to mediate a Palestinian reconciliation leading to a Palestinian delegation at peace talks, or if Obama cannot deliver the Israelis to the table, then it only becomes a matter of time before another crisis begins.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a key problem in the wider Middle East for most of the last century. But for most of that time, governments in the region were able to engage the problem without direct threats to their legitimacy. From out of a small square in downtown Cairo, desire for change all over the Arab world has become like a genie: it will not be put back into the bottle. The question is ‘how’ the conflict will change; it is not a matter of ‘if’. Nor should we ask ‘when,’ because it’s happening now.