We've seen a disturbing escalation of violence in Palestine and Israel over the past few days. Rockets from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Shelling from Israel. Indiscriminate bombs from, so far, an unknown source.
If this trend continues, what will be its effect on the pro-democracy movements across the region?
We should first consider the motives behind the attacks. Arab dictators have long used attacks on Israel to distract from domestic problems. Currently, neither Hamas nor Fatah enjoy significant popular support. Just last week, Human Rights Watch criticized Hamas for violently suppressing peaceful protests in Gaza. Is it a coincidence that, just as people began to liken Hamas to Mubarak, rockets began to fly? Doubtful.
Until we have evidence about who bombed the Jerusalem bus stop today (there was also a pipe bomb two weeks ago), we shouldn't jump to conclusions over who is to blame. It may well be a Palestinian faction. Less likely but still possible, it could be a disillusioned lone actor. Perhaps more intriguing, some have suggested it very well could be a foreign government, such as Syria which has suddenly seen an uptick in unrest.
Regardless of who is responsible, it is far from clear that the violence will achieve its objective of displacing domestic discontent upon foreign enemies. For one, such old tricks have lost their effectiveness over time (fool me once...). But more importantly, for the first time Arabs believe they may finally have a real opportunity to effect change in their countries. Absorbed in their own righteous struggles, they will not be easily distracted. Just as Iranians have chanted "Neither Gaza, nor Lebanon, I will give my life for Iran," so are Arabs giving their lives - quite literally - for the sake of their own countries.
Thus while an Israeli-Palestinian flare-up may dampen Arab democratic movements, it will be far from a fatal blow. That, of course, does not mean that Arabs no longer care about the plight of the Palestinians. Quite the opposite, as many directly link the overthrow of their dictators to the eventual liberation of Palestine. But at least for now, focus has been turned inward.
While the violence will not end Arab demands for democracy, it will likely color how Arabs interpret American and European military intervention in Libya. Already, the Arab world - with the obvious exception of Libyans - has split on whether to support the mission in Libya. See, for example, how the outgoing Arab League head Amr Moussa has played rhetorical twister over the past week. That uneasiness will turn to outright indignation if violence escalates in Israel and Palestine. Many Arabs will simply not distinguish Israel F-16s flying over Gaza from American F-16s flying over Libya.
We have three purposes in Libya: protect civilians, preserve democracy's momentum in the region, and garner good will for joining the right side of history. If violence escalates in Israel and Palestine, the humanitarian component will remain, as well democracy's momentum for reasons described above. However, any good will we may have earned will be lost. Such perceptions of the U.S. will become increasingly important as Arab countries democratize.
Stopping the violence now is therefore essential. Because we have no influence over Palestinian violent extremists, we will have to primarily focus our efforts to ensure Israeli restraint. This will not be easy. Already, Israel has entered a bunker mentality, especially after the overthrow of Mubarak and the empowerment of Hezbollah. It is no coincidence they will likely ask for $20 billion more in U.S. foreign assistance. Moreover, as President Obama just affirmed, Israel clearly retains the right of self-defense. But sometimes the best defense is heroic restraint. And we will have to win that argument with the Israelis.
UPDATE: Hussein Ibish writes about the same topic here at Foreign Policy. He correctly points out that while increased Israeli-Palestinian violence "won't stop the reform movement dead in its tracks," it will alter the tone of these movements by adding fuel to an anti-Western Islamist narrative.