Will Summer follow Spring?

By Jim Murphy, May 6, 2011

Events in North Africa and the Middle East have proved again that real power can lie in the common causes that unite people and that the denial of freedom is unsustainable. Time removes power from dictators. However, in a region with shallow democratic roots and no coherent leadership to the revolution, it is still unclear where events will lead. What is clear is that this is a defining challenge for the international community's posture on defence.

The Arab Spring has been striking for the absence of Israel as a focal point. Regimes have interchangeably claimed that both Israel and outside terrorists are involved in the uprisings, but their publics know better and know that the people standing with them in the streets are simply their neighbours and friends. The demonstrators' focus on overthrowing oppressive rulers could point to the secular nature of the movements or suggest a political sophistication among demonstrators keen on gaining wide support, but it should not overshadow the fact that the impact of the uprisings will have profound consequences for Israel.

Close working relationships with countries across the region are crucial for Israel - in particular with Egypt, given the 32-year-old peace treaty between the two countries, and it was important that the new Egyptian government said they will honour the agreement -- but administrations with whom Israel will necessarily engage could soon have a very different composition.

All eyes have turned to Syria and the appalling violence there. The international community has expressed condemnation, despite opposition from some, in an important UN statement but it is vital that action taken is meaningful. That means suspension of international aid programmes, financial sanctions at the UN or EU level on individuals and organisations, a legitimate investigation into the violence, and genuine, rapid democratic reforms.

While diplomatic efforts to forge a peace agreement between Israel and Syria have not succeeded, the border region around the Golan Heights has been quiet for nearly 40 years and it is vital that current unrest does not change that. We do not know what will emerge, but key will be the respect for the freedoms and rights expected in democracies becoming a reality in Syria.

The international community must take responsibility to ensure that transition to peace and democracy across the region is meaningful. There are in my view four priorities.

First, the international community should invest in regional democratic transition to encourage reform in autocracies. Internal oppression has been revealed as one of the biggest threats we face but there is a clear danger in security vacuums emerging. Sustainable stability will be achieved by promoting democratic values and effective national and local governance and functioning rule of law.

Second, the outcome of the conflict in Libya is critical. It was right that the UK took the opportunity to help enforce international law and save innocents from slaughter. It is now vital that we enforce UN Resolution 1973 to protect civilians and help the transition to self-determination in Libya become a reality. The conflict must be a statement of what is unacceptable in the world, and it must have a lasting, peaceful conclusion.

The third priority is to add energy to the peace process. Fundamental stability could stem from an agreement. The international community must, with the Quartet, work towards a two-state solution, providing security and justice for Israelis and Palestinians, based on 1967 borders, with Jerusalem the capital of both countries and the right terms for refugees.

The fourth priority is greater multilateralism in security policy. The collective international operation in Libya was described by Hillary Clinton as a "watershed moment for international decision-making" and such multilateralism should characterise international action. That means strengthening multilateral institutions as well as seeking conflict resolution through regional political reconciliation.

The stakes are high for Israel but what is clear is that things have changed for good. The challenge is to make sure they have also changed for the better.

Rt Hon Jim Murphy MP is the Shadow Defence Secretary and former chair of Labour Friends of Israel

Last updated: 11:18am, May 6 2011