Patrick Cockburn writes:
The bomb attack on a bus in Jerusalem this week killed one woman and wounded 24 people. The casualties were not high compared with similar bombings in the city over the last 20 years. I lived off the Jaffa Road for four years in the mid-1990s when bus bombings were common. I used to walk to look at the smouldering carcass of the latest bus to be hit, its metal panels bulging out from the force of the explosion. The latest bombing is having more impact than its predecessors because it is the first in Jerusalem for seven years. It comes just as there is an increase of violence between Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank and in and around Gaza. None of this might have serious repercussions except that these incidents are happening just as the political landscape of the Arab world is being radically transformed to a degree that has not happened for half a century.
Suppose the uprisings across the Middle East had happened five years ago: Israel could not have been certain of the inaction of Arab leaders as it launched two limited wars. The Israeli bombardment and ground invasion of Lebanon in 2006 created a furious popular reaction in the region. But this did not much matter because power among Israel’s neighbours was in the hands of kings and presidents who covertly hoped that the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon would be destroyed or crippled.
The same thing happened during “Operation Cast Lead” in 2008-9 when Israel launched a three week-long air and land bombardment of Gaza which killed at least 1,200 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died during the conflict. Throughout, the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cooperated with Israel, in sealing off Gaza from the outside world. The political cost to Israel and the US was not high because condemnation by the “Arab street” – that patronising and dismissive term that encapsulates the media’s contempt for the Arab public – did not count.
This is not going to happen again in quite the same way. No wonder the Israeli establishment was aghast as it watched Mubarak being gradually forced from power. Israeli leaders bad-mouthed Barack Obama for not supporting the Egyptian leader more effectively. Egypt is not going to abrogate its peace treaty with Israel, but it is likely to react more forcefully than in the past to Israeli actions of which ordinary Egyptians disapprove.
Previous political calculations about the outcome of Israeli actions in the Middle East have all changed over the past three months. States like Egypt will no longer be politically neutered by being wholly under the control of a decrepit and unpopular ruler who was not going to go against US wishes. That said, the degree of change is still unclear. Elites that got rid of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt and possibly, in the next few weeks, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, are doing so in order to make sure that uprisings do not turn into real revolutions.
The US has much the same aim. But it may not be able to achieve this if, in future, its tolerance of Israeli colonisation of the West Bank remains automatic. It has to grapple with the fact that in Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan – together with Saudi Arabia the three Muslim countries that matter most to the US – an average of 17 per cent of people view US policies favourably, according to a poll by the Pew Research Centre.
Democratisation in the Middle East was always going to produce governments that the US and Israel would not like.