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The oldest Macguffin of modern times: An Egyptian boy in Tahrir Square holds a defaced poster of outgoing President Hosni Mubarak

The United Nations General Assembly is not known its for displays of ludic wit, but one anecdote stands out as an exception to the dire earnestness of the chamber's proceedings. In 1961, Adlai Stevenson, then US ambassador to the UN, was forced to give a robotic and deeply uncomfortable comment on the recent Bay of Pigs invasion, which at the time included a denial that the Kennedy administration had had anything to do with it. Addressing the First Committee of the General Assembly, Stevenson lapsed into a rare malapropism tied to Communism's intolerance of religion: "Fidel Castro has..." he said, turning a page in his prepared statement, "circumcised the freedoms of the Catholics of Cuba." Gideon Rafael, the Israeli delegate who had spent the better part of this speech doodling in his notepad out of boredom, grew suddenly alive to the moment. Turning to his Irish counterpart, the great historian and statesman Conor Cruise O'Brien, Rafael announced: "I always knew that we should be blamed for this, sooner or later."

If ever there was a lesson to be learnt from the last three months of Arab and Persian revolts, it is that Zionism is perhaps not the most meddlesome ideology to interfere with Middle Eastern affairs. That it's been the most convenient scapegoat for why the region still seems a forbidding desert of dysfunction, the land of torture chambers, rigged elections and every shade of obscurantism, is more a matter of rhetorical convention than empirical reality.  

For decades, the Palestinian national cause, just and necessary though it is, has been presented by a strange consortium of non-Palestinian dictators, left-wing intellectuals, right-wing policy analysts and any-wing newspaper correspondents as the key to all regional mythologies. Israel, according to this paradigm, was the great spoiler of "stability," and Palestine the great symbol for a century of collective Arab grievances. Emirs and foreign ministers, as shown by the recent WikiLeaks dump of State Department cables, reiterated this argument almost as a tic of diplomacy and even while emphasising the greater urgency of America's military confrontation of Iran's nuclear weapons program.

But now we've seen evidence that the overriding concerns of the jobless, imprisoned, censored, bullied and bloodied peoples of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Syria have not, in fact, been the real estate habits of ultra-nationalist Jews in the West Bank, much less the fractiousness of the Netanyahu cabinet or the sacredness of the Temple Mount. The momentum and direction of history was better guessed at by Facebook and Twitter than by the Guardian or the BBC. One might have imagined that Israel, if only temporarily, was about to be consigned to the periphery of the what-went-wrong debate.

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