The Middle East: Has Hope Become Truly and Treacherously Audacious?

Events in the Middle East in the last few weeks of November suggest a sad, simple, and scary conclusion. Key logical propositions that have given many of us reason to hope for a better future for the region and its people are proving to be imperiled, perhaps impossible, by decisions of particular leaders.

In Israel, the evidence grows that the current government's security policies are premised on a strong predisposition against the possibility of a negotiated two-state solution that would have any viability on the Palestinian side.

In Egypt, the recent authoritarian moves by President Morsi raise concern than many people's fears of anti-democratic tendencies in the Muslim Brotherhood may be true.

In both cases, confronting this recent evidence is not merely personally agonizing for people like me who have studied the region for decades, and believed that Israeli leaders cared about peace and the Arab political populism could uproot authoritarianism. These recent events leave little grounds for hope for an immediate Middle Eastern future founded on anything other than fear, force, and fanaticism.

Let's start with Israel first. There are many ways to explain the government's reaction to the Palestinian statehood vote at the UN of announcing more West Bank settlements that allow belief that this is diplomatic wrangling still compatible with resuming genuine negotiations towards a two-state solution. It is much harder to do this with the overall record of settler growth in recent years. Similarly, it is easy to frame Israel's week of aerial bombardment of Gaza as a response to Hamas' possible recent diplomatic emboldening. It is more difficult to make sense of beginning this campaign by assassinating a leader who had a track record of working with the Israeli government and, it is emerging, a likely posture of laying the groundwork for a long-term truce with the Jewish state.

I believe that the current government of Israel's apparent lack of real commitment to a negotiated, feasible Palestinian state has to do with some combination of a sense of domestic pressures and accountability, and a belief that more guns, settlements and walls are safer bets for Israel's future than diplomacy. However, some Israelis, many American Jews and most of the rest of the world disagree.

Some argue that the likely demise of the two-state solution may open the door for new prospects for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Given that a majority on both sides still supports the two-state idea, and the nationalistic frame of both people's identity, I find this difficult to understand.

So I wonder increasingly where hope lies for a stable and reasonable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Things in Egypt are just as bad. For a moment, as the truce between Gaza and Israel was being established, it seemed as if narrowly-elected President Morsi had overcome a sense among many Egyptians of ineffectiveness through pragmatic maneuvering on the global diplomatic stage. Then, Morsi over-played his hand, using this brief triumph to take on authoritarian powers which he claimed were temporary, and necessary to trump remaining anti-democratic elements of the old Mubarak regime, most notably in the judiciary.

Egypt's resulting recent chaos has been heart-breaking. Secularists and Islamists, united to bring down the previous regime, are engaged in a bitter political struggle that the new government appears to be winning and that looks likely to pave the way for renewed political repression. Because of Egypt's example, Islamist political parties, hoped by so many to be compatible with Western democratic norms, may now rekindle global fires of Islamophobia or allow some leaders to feel justified once more in trying to prevent further popular Arab mobilization against tyranny.

As with the Palestinian-Israeli situation, thoughtful, knowledgeable analysts are now throwing up their hands in deep despair because of Egypt. A hastily-prepared, flawed new Constitution forced on Egyptians through a popular referendum? Efforts to intimidate opposition through mobilized pro-government demonstrations and forceful crackdowns on protests? The old signs of authoritarian intimidation are present in Egypt this week.

I notice that a lot of colleagues, who have maintained well-reasoned counsels of hope for change that benefits beleaguered peoples of the Middle East, have been silent. Like me, no doubt, they are asking themselves wherein lie the prospects for a region that does not once more spiral into even greater hatred, violence and repression?

On the Palestinian-Israeli side, I suppose the admittedly thin reeds of hope come from the level of global support for Palestinians that last week's statehood resolution revealed. If the emergence of a truly visionary leader on any side seems beyond hope, can the genuine concern that many countries and people have for Palestinians begin to convince more Israelis and Americans of political influence that an official Israeli governmental posture of sticking its head in the sand is not viable in the medium run? A clever, broadly-multilateral sustained diplomatic game of carrots and sticks in the new, volatile context of the Middle East may yet hold the prospects for bringing Palestinians and Israelis back from the brink of entrenched, deaf-eared and deadly conflict.

As for Egypt, it is still a little too soon to tell whether Morsi is a new Mubarak in Islamic clothes. In fact, the new president may share the fate of his predecessor, which would then augment, rather than detract from, Egyptians' democratic uprising.

But, while the world waits for Egyptians, and hopefully supports proponents of long-term democracy on both the secular and Islamist sides, maybe the best counsel of hope is not to throw out the Arab democratic baby with Nile bathwater. It is always tempting within and outside of the Middle East to see Egypt as the center and bellwether for the Arab world.

Yet pressures for greater political accountability, and less authoritarian Islamist politics, remain in evidence in other Arab countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia, and even Libya. Moreover, Middle Eastern trends towards globalization, improving education and political awareness argue for more democratic government in the long term, however troubling developments, at least in Egypt, seem at the moment.

I admit that holding onto hope for a more democratic, peaceful Middle East is hard at the moment for folks like me whose sources of optimism seem to be drying up. So this is a great time for fresh eyes to see kindly counsels of hope, however far-fetched, as opposed to the usual strident justifications for increased conflict and the demonization of opponents.