The scenes on Israel's borders at the weekend were without precedent. From Lebanon to Syria to Gaza, Palestinians commemorated the Catastrophe that for them was the creation of Israel by mounting a co-ordinated challenge to Israel's security. The resulting clashes, in which 12 Palestinians were killed and many more injured in Israel's characteristically heavy-handed response, offer a grim premonition of what could be to come – a nightmare counterpart to the dream sequence of democratic uprisings elsewhere in the region.
In one respect, it was only a matter of time before Palestinians sought to join the Arab Spring, beyond the few sporadic demonstrations that have erupted in recent weeks inside Gaza. In their powerlessness, their poverty and their demography, Palestinians share most of the grievances that have brought their fellow Arabs on to the streets. They mobilised the same social networking tools to mount their protests; they vented similar frustrations.
For many reasons, however – not least the Palestinians' quest for statehood – their protests cannot be quite like the others. From Syria, and perhaps from Lebanon, complicity cannot be ruled out on the part of governments trying to defuse, or divert attention from, internal protests of their own. And the fact that demonstrators were able to reach Israel's border fences on three fronts at once, and managed to breach its defences in the Golan Heights, will only augment Israel's abiding sense of insecurity. In the event that Egypt also proves unwilling or unable to secure the border at Rafa, it is more than likely that Israel will be tempted to resort to considerably more force than it applied on Sunday. The consequences for Israel itself and for the region as a whole could be dire.
Some in Israel see the hand of Iran behind the latest protests. But it is not necessary to look further than Israel's immediate neighbours to appreciate the volatility of the present situation. For years, Israel was able to count on Egypt and Syria doing nothing that would upset the status quo. With Hosni Mubarak in enforced retirement and Bashar al-Assad's regime rocked by protests, that sense of stability has gone. But relations with the Palestinians have not achieved any compensating stability of their own.
There are reasons why the peace process has stalled, of course: the split between Fatah and Hamas that allowed Israel to claim it had no one to talk to; Benjamin Netanyahu's reliance on the support of Avigdor Lieberman's far-right party to govern at all; President Obama's early decision to make improved relations with Islamic countries a priority. But the speed of change everywhere else in the region is now outpacing any progress in Israel-Palestinian relations and risks rendering it dangerously irrelevant.
If the imperative to get the peace process going again were not evident already, the Palestinian protests at the weekend make it so now. Nor need the prospect be dismissed as hopeless. Moves by Fatah and Hamas to settle their differences subtract one obstacle. The resignation of the long-time US negotiator, George Mitchell, while widely lamented, might possibly open the way for some new thinking. And the killing of Osama bin Laden at the hands of US commandos gives Mr Obama more room for manoeuvre than he has had for some time.
On Thursday, in his first major foreign policy speech since his Cairo address two years ago, he is expected to "re-set" relations with the region in the light of the Arab Spring. He should seize the moment to re-start the clock on reaching a Middle East peace settlement, and make this the urgent priority for what remains of his first term. Indeed, such is the pace of events that he almost has no choice.Reuse content