Palestine challenge perplexes US, Israel

2011-09-24 12:05

In the past week, my discussions over Middle East issues with a range of knowledgeable people in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington confirm the view I have held for some time: official and other American attitudes towards the Middle East, especially towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, are characterised by deep perplexity, contradiction and disarray.

No wonder the region is in the middle of a historic transition that has radically shifted political action and diplomatic control away from US-Israeli dominance towards a greater role for Arab public opinion.

One reason for this change is the exaggerated focus on Israel and its wellbeing in the US, instead of a more honest approach that would view Israeli, Arab, Iranian and Turkish rights and wellbeing as the four critical and equally valid criteria of diplomatic action.

Many analysts note Israel’s isolation, and some see that the US has lost much of its former influence in the region.
Rarely, however, are Israeli and American policies mentioned as elements that could have brought these two powerful countries to this moment when they are isolated, almost alone, and in many ways helpless in dealing with major regional issues.

Much of the public and private talk I have experienced in the US has concentrated on the implications of the Palestinian move to ask the United Nations to recognise a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders (West Bank, Gaza, Arab East Jerusalem).

Like everything else in the American political realm, this discussion is both polarised and sharply defined by the arguments of the pro-Israel lobbies that shape official policy in Washington.

The most significant aspect of this Palestinian move is that it shatters the diplomatic status quo that has prevailed for several decades, and seeks to replace it with something more productive and fair.

Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership of the central highlands of the West Bank have made a dramatic move by taking the Palestinian issue to the UN for adjudication.

The consequences of a UN vote and possible retribution by Israel and the US all remain unclear as does, troublingly, the follow-up Palestinian political strategy after the UN process starts later this week.

It is also appropriate to criticise Abbas and colleagues for conducting this venture in secrecy, without any meaningful input from Palestinians. Still, the move is intriguing as it seems to do three novel things at once:

» It shows that Arabs – even the weak, divided, occupied and subjugated Palestinians – have the ability to initiate substantive political moves that could perhaps lead to useful results.

If this were to be achieved by a largely discredited, isolated and broadly delegitimised leadership that represents a small number of Palestinians, imagine what could happen if a united Palestinian leadership were to rally widespread Arab and other friendly support for a major global initiative to achieve Palestinian and Arab rights.

It breaks the stranglehold that Israel and the US have had for nearly four decades on diplomatic moves to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Long seen as the two strongest powers in this region, Israel and the US now appear politically isolated and diplomatically impotent.

The desperation of the American-Israeli governments is best seen in their almost farcical moves last week to have American Middle East adviser Dennis Ross and the Diplomatic Quartet’s special envoy, Tony Blair, offer compromise proposals to induce the Palestinians to withdraw their UN bid and revert instead to American-mediated bilateral talks with Israel.

Ross and Blair set the standard in intellectual and political dishonesty in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy. Sending us Ross-Blair is not a serious initiative; it is a gross insult.

» It forces all parties to explore new and more legitimate venues, such as the UN, in which to adjudicate the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieve a permanent, comprehensive peace agreement that is fair to all concerned.

The shift to the UN or other international forums will highlight the many legal, ethical and practical issues that have to be addressed to achieve the desired state of peace and coexistence, instead of assuring Israel’s security and adjusting to its colonisation exploits as the starting and end points of diplomacy.

– Agence Global

» Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon 

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