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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Middle East teeters on the brink as Palestine and protests converge



Demanding UN recognition: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

By James M. Dorsey

The Middle East and North Africa are on the brink of risky sabre rattling that could erupt into armed conflict as the region's ten-month old wave of anti-government protests converges with stalled efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Mr. Abbas’s request for United Nations Security Council recognition has put Palestine back on the agenda of both the international community and anti-government protesters. It has also put US credibility, US ability to influence events in the region and Washington’s relations with its closest allies on the line.

The United States has vowed to veto recognition despite the fact that it has been unable to square the circle of a veto with President Barak Obama's public support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and warnings by Arab leaders that a veto would substantially undermine US credibility and could affect relations with its closest Arab allies, among whom first and foremost Saudi Arabia.

The diplomatic battle is likely to focus on buying time on the vote in a bid to allow for a revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that would justify postponing a vote until the talks produce results or agreement is reached on the terms underlying UN recognition. In effect, by formally requesting Security Council recognition, Mr. Abbas hopes to have bought the Palestinians some leverage.

Mr. Abbas has an interest in stepping up pressure on the United States to put its money where its mouth is but he like President Barak Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu does not want to see US credibility undermined to the degree that it no longer can act as the accepted mediator of an Israeli-Palestinian peace. By seeking Security Council recognition, Mr. Abbas has also earned brownie points by having put his Hamas rivals, who opposed his UN initiative, on the defensive – a fact that US and Israeli officials privately acknowledge but do not want to publicly acknowledge.

Mr. Abbas’ strategy has already put efforts to break the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peace into high gear. The Middle East Quartet – the United States, the European Union Russia and the UN – called Friday for Israel and Palestine to meet within a month agree on an agenda for peace talks, table comprehensive peace proposals within three months, achieve substantial progress within six months and reach agreement by the end of next year.

Nonetheless, Mr. Abbas’ strategy is not without risks. Mr. Abbas has yet to accept the Quartet’s proposal, which would effectively put his UN recognition bid on hold. He is likely to question the Quartet’s ability to enforce its timetable with Mr. Obama 13 months away from US presidential elections. Mr. Abbas has moreover said that he would only return to the negotiating table if Israel freezes the building of Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and agrees to the borders of the Palestinian state being based on the borders prior to the 1967 war in which Israel captured the two territories as well as the Gaza Strip. Israel is demanding talks without pre-conditions.

The US elections mean that Mr. Obama is in no position to engage in the banging of heads needed to force Israelis and Palestinians into genuine negotiations that do not amount to a mere going through the motions and that would entail a bruising domestic battle with supporters of Israel. Mr. Abbas does not have 13 months. He will soon have to show some result to meet public expectations created by his request for recognition and prevent Hamas from being able to justify its rejection of his strategy.

Mr. Abbas’ battle cry is likely to reverberate on the streets of Arab capitals where for much of the past ten months Palestine did not figure in mass anti-government protests but were never far from the surface. Protesters in Egypt, one of two Arab states that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, earlier this month stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo forcing diplomatic staff to be evacuated back to Israel.

The pending Security Council vote coupled with a continued Israeli-Palestinian stalemate or peace talks that amount to motion without movement; deteriorating relations between Israel and its closest Muslim ally, Turkey; strains in the ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia; and the fact that embattled Arab leaders in Syria and Yemen would welcome a foreign policy distraction from popular demands for their resignation offers a perfect recipe for increased brinkmanship that could get out of control.

Embattled presidents Bashar al Assad and Ali Abdullah Saleh, who this week returned to Yemen after months of treatment in Saudi Arabia for severe wounds he suffered in an attack on his presidential compound, have both accused foreign forces of instigating the protests that are rocking their regimes. Mr. Saleh’s surprise return to Yemen followed warnings by a prominent member of the Saudi royal family, former intelligence chief Prince Turk al-Faisal, that a US veto of UN recognition of Palestine could trigger reduced cooperation with the United States on resolving the crisis in Yemen and ensuring stability in Iraq.

Messrs. Abbas and Netanyahu steered well clear of brinkmanship in their addresses on Friday to the UN General Assembly offering each other a hand or an olive branch. Yet, the likelihood that Security Council will not recognize Palestinian statehood any time soon coupled with an increasingly defiant and defensive mood in Israel hardly bodes well for the future. The sooner rather than later realization on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip that Mr. Abbas’ UN initiative is not producing results could well signal the spread of the region’s protests to Palestine, pitting Palestinian demonstrators against Israeli security forces.

Israel is already on alert in advance of the Jewish holiday season and a perceived threat from the Sinai that Jerusalem sees as an increasingly lawless territory where crime gangs, Palestinians and Al Qaeda sympathizers are able to operate with relative impunity. The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo was sparked by an incident earlier this month in which Israeli accidentally killed five Egyptian soldiers.

Tension is also building on the high seas of the Eastern Mediterranean with Turkey warning that its navy will challenge Israel if it seeks to stop Gaza-bound aid ships in violation of Israel’s unilateral blockade of the Hamas-controlled strip. It has also warned Cyprus if it goes ahead with Israeli-backed oil exploration in disputed waters. Turkey earlier this month expelled the Israeli ambassador and froze all military cooperation after Israel refused to apologize for its stopping last year of a Turkish aid ship during which eight Turks and a Turkish-American national were killed. Turkey has further threatened to freeze relations with the European Union if Cyprus next year assumes as scheduled the EU presidency for a period of six months.  

All in all, there is no lack of flashpoints and sufficient interest across the region in escalating tension. To prevent increased brinkmanship from getting out of hand, progress in Israel-Palestinian peace talks is a sine qua non. The Quartet’s initiative may be a first step but with doubts that its tight timetable can be achieved it may at best temporarily delay escalation of tension in the Middle East but unlikely to pull it back from the brink.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer

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