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[Trudy Rubin] Old order finally ending in Mideast

For years, many Middle Easterners have operated on the premise that things could continue as in the past. Arab autocrats assumed they could rule forever, and many Israelis thought they could occupy forever.

President George W. Bush tried to explode the status quo by imposing democracy on Iraq from above, but we’ve seen where that led.

As of this month, we are entering a new era ― for Arabs and Israelis ― in which past assumptions must be reconsidered. The old order is being shaken in uncontrollable ways.

The Tunisian rebellion has unleashed pent-up passions of a generation of angry Arab youths who felt they had no options. Some regimes may be able to suppress these cries of pain temporarily, but they can no longer be silenced.

However, the aging autocrats of Egypt, Algeria, Libya and Saudi Arabia have mostly squashed any moderate opposition, thus destroying the likelihood of a smooth passage to representative government. That leaves the field open to Islamists, who can organize in the mosque, or possibly to populists with military support.

Tunisia, with a strong middle class, may have the best chance for a decent transition. In countries riven by sectarianism, such as Lebanon and Syria, large segments of the public may accept leaders they detest rather than contemplate civil war.

But the new belief among young Arabs that change is possible ― inspired by Tunis and spread on the Internet ― will not easily be dampened. Do not confuse their passionate pleas for justice with a new democracy movement; grassroots protests may shake the old order, but there is little reason to hope that democratic governments will emerge.

Meanwhile, within Israel and Palestine, recent events also signal that old assumptions are passe.

Last week, someone leaked internal Palestinian negotiating documents to al-Jazeera that detail 17 years of peace talks with Israel. They reveal far-reaching concessions offered by negotiators for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. The talks foundered when then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign over corruption allegations.

Those who’ve followed the history of Israeli-Palestinian talks were familiar with most of these details. But they were not supposed to be made public before a final accord; neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli public was fully aware of the fine print.

What’s significant is that both sides were discussing the nitty-gritty, with even more specifics than during serious Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2000-01. As has been previously revealed, Olmert proposed that Israel keep about 6 percent of West Bank land, including some Jewish settlements near the 1967 border, in return for which Palestinians would get a land bridge to Gaza and other bits of Israeli land.

Palestinians countered with a proposal of a 1.9 percent swap. According to the documents, they would have allowed Israel to keep most of the large suburbs it has built around Jerusalem on onetime West Bank land. In return, Palestinians wanted Israel to dismantle two large settlements, Ariel and Maale Adumim, that protrude dramatically into the West Bank, effectively dividing that already small piece of land.

Many Palestinians are stunned at the extent of the concessions their negotiators were considering, especially as Israel continues to expand settlements on the West Bank. Even though no agreement was reached (and U.S. officials could have done far more to facilitate one), these documents prove that Israel had a partner for peace.

Yet the leak, along with the Tunis revolt, will energize the Palestinian grass roots. It may make it impossible for Palestinian negotiators to replicate the 2008 offer, and it could even disqualify their negotiating team. It certainly will decrease the chances for compromise.

Meantime, many Israelis now reject the equally dramatic concessions Olmert was willing to consider. Israeli officials are now promoting an “interim” Palestinian state on only 40 percent of West Bank land. This is a fantasy that would be rejected by Palestinians and the international community; many countries are moving to recognize a Palestinian state within the entire 1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza.

The clock can’t be rolled back. The message of 2011 is that Arab and Israeli leaders who don’t get ahead of Mideast events with far-reaching ideas will face nasty surprises. That goes for U.S. leaders as well.

By Trudy Rubin

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. ― Ed.

(The Philadelphia Inquirer)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)