Jul 10, 2012 at 7:00 am

In Syria, body parts are strewn across the streets of Damascus while heartbreaking images — row upon row of children’s corpses — flash across the TV screens in our living rooms.

In Bahrain, doctors are thrown into jail for treating injured protestors.

In Iran, the mullahs defy international sanctions in an unrelenting quest to achieve nuclear breakout capability — a breakpoint that would undoubtedly set off a nuclear arms race in the region.

Yet, incredibly, 18 months into the Arab Spring, we’re still being fed the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root cause of all instability in the Middle East. Its resolution, we are told, would alleviate all tensions and solve the most pressing problems in the region.

Just recently, the brutal Assad regime had the audacity to argue before the UN Human Rights Council that Israel’s occupation remains the main obstacle for peace and stability in the region. This from a regime that is running 27 “torture centers” across the country and has slaughtered thousands of its own people in a civil war that can potentially ignite a major conflagration.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is neither the defining issue of the region nor the principal source of Arab discontent. Considering the 1,300-year-old span and depth of the Sunni-Shiite divide, the century old Israeli-Arab conflict seems brief by comparison. In truth, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a convenient sideshow to the real problems within Arab societies and an implausible excuse used by Arab dictators who have ill-served the interests of their own populations and are now reaping the consequences of that neglect.

Protesters marching against their own repressive regimes throughout the Middle East are demanding freedom, human rights and a more equitable distribution of national resources and wealth. More than an Arab Spring, this is a Winter of Arab Discontent: Discontent that is a result of high unemployment rates within societies that are predominantly young (the median age in Egypt is 24).

According to a survey conducted by public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, “Earning a fair wage and owning a home are now the two highest priorities for young people in the Middle East.” In short, people would like a job and to be able to put food on the table.

In the vacuum created by the Arab Spring uprisings, new and dangerous alliances are being formed based on the Sunni-Shiite schism. Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and the preeminent Shiite power in the region, is dangerously extending its influence, using proxies such as Hezbollah and alliances with Syria and Iraq. In an already volatile and unstable region, the rise of political Islam is a risky development that must not be ignored or obfuscated.

While no one can predict the future, Israel strongly believes that there is an opportunity in this current state of uncertainty and ambiguity. We hope for regional peace and prosperity and for the promise of democracy to be fulfilled for all of our neighbors. However, as Israel knows from its experience in the Gaza elections, which brought Hamas to power, “democracy” is just as much an end goal as it is a tool — a tool that is often used and abused by Islamist parties to seize power. Democracy is about much more than elections.

In 1979, while educated, pro-democracy youth in Iran helped take down the shah with their own version of Tahrir Square, they were unable to translate spontaneous outbursts into political power, which was ultimately seized by the Islamists. The Islamic Republic of Iran, focused not on democracy, but on exporting Islamic revolution and terror throughout the world, stands as a memory of this failure.

The problems facing our region are systemic, and the Arab Spring uprisings did not eliminate them, but rather exposed them for the world to see. Civil society in the Arab world is as fractured and complex as ever. The democratic process is just beginning for the region, and immense challenges face both the electorate and its leaders.

One thing is certain: Their destiny is entirely in their own hands. While no one expects parliamentary elections to settle millenniums-old religious conflicts or to lift the economy overnight, prioritizing democracy and quality of life over sectarian politics is a winning formula that Israel proudly supports and believes to be the best hope for long-term regional stability.

It is our hope that this course will eventually lead the region to a path of unity, true democracy and prosperity for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. But while it is critically important to bring about a full and fair resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recent events should serve as a reminder to us all: When discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a regional perspective on the true nature of Arab discontent is imperative.

(Photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images)