4 February 2011, by
Tunisia has fallen; Egypt is on the verge; Jordan, Yemen and Algeria are feeling the tremors.
Many commentators have mentioned that these revolutions are about bread, freedom and justice, and they have also frequently mentioned “dignity.” Having used that word often to describe Palestinian needs vis-a-vis Israeli occupation, I sought a definition of this keyword, and found: “the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect.”
This need for status and legitimacy in a community is basic and universal, and can only be disregarded at considerable cost. Certainly, Arab states have not offered their citizens this dignity, and now they are suffering the consequences.
Many Arab leaders have also failed to proffer dignity on another level. Intentionally or not, they are perceived as complicit in Israel’s occupation, weak in standing up to Israeli actions − thereby striking another blow at the Arab need for dignity.
This explains the broad popularity of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who through his words and his war machine against Israel, gives Arabs that desire for dignity that most of their leaders have failed to deliver. This kind of “outward” dignity regarding an enemy trumps the need for internal dignity because, in the Arab world, the needs of the group supersede those of the individual.
Curiously, this may also explain why Syria, a tougher and more thorough regime of oppression than Egypt’s, may be less likely to face revolution than other Arab countries. Beyond its ruthlessness, Syria’s politics of Arab dignity and support for resistance against Israel may provide a measure of immunity from popular revolt. Its refusal to “fold” to Israeli and American demands make it that much less susceptible to the Dignity Revolution sweeping the Arab world.
Ultimately, the Syrian people may still find their government sufficiently lacking in liberties to warrant a revolt, but the pan-Arab sense of a lack of dignity due to Israeli oppression of the Palestinians will nevertheless not go away. Indeed, the more democratic Arab governments become, the more those governments will demand that Israel end the occupation.
If Israel had foresight regarding the future of the region, it would rush to create a Palestinian state along sustainable and fair lines (i.e., not interim, not partial and not in denial of history), and thus avoid decades of future confrontation based on this profound Arab need.
Although not a sure bet, it is the best one available. The status quo guarantees conflict.
The real question at hand is what the limits are of this natural desire for dignity, and how it takes concrete form. Within Arab states, the need for status and respect will have to be balanced alongside that for bread and freedom, and the necessary political culture and structures will have to be developed: a long-term proposition. Regarding Israel, the need for dignity will revolve around where Israel ends and Palestine begins in terms of borders, the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees.
So far, Israel has avoided answering these basic questions, thus permitting radicals like Nasrallah to press the claim for dignity ad infinitum.
The responsibility of countries like the United States will be to insist that the need for redress for Palestinian and thus Arab dignity is answered fairly and squarely − and soon − by defining the limits of an Israeli and Palestinian state and the other core issues of the conflict.
By doing so, it will be nipping in the bud a natural cause for Arab revolt and conflict with Israel for decades to come. All the bread, new political structures and development projects in the world will not make this basic, universal need for status and respect go away. Over time, the current Arab revolutions will only naturally also look to ensure that the Palestinians are also treated as “worthy of respect.”