Palestinian Challenge Perplexes Americans and Israelis
Op-Ed, Agence Global
September 21, 2011
Author: Rami Khouri, Senior Fellow, Middle East Initiative
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Dubai Initiative
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In the past week in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington my discussions on Mideast issues with a wide range of knowledgeable people confirm the view I have held for some time now: Official and other American attitudes to the Middle East, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict, are characterized by deep perplexity, contradiction and disarray. No wonder the region is in the midst of a historic transition that has radically shifted the center of gravity of political action and diplomatic control away from American-Israeli dominance, towards a greater role for Arab public opinion.
One reason for this change is the exaggerated focus on Israel and its wellbeing as the centerpiece of analysis in the United States, 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 United States 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 discussion and private talks I have experienced in the United States have concentrated on the implications of the Palestinian move to ask the United Nations to recognize 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 highly polarized and also sharply defined by the arguments of the pro-Israel lobbies that effectively shape official policy in Washington -- such as that only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can bring about a Palestinian state, rather than taking the issue to the UN.
The most significant aspect of this Palestinian move -- visible in the parallel hysterical American-Israeli reaction -- 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 (for that is essentially all they control, and even there only partially) 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 United States 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 criticize Abbas and colleagues for conducting this entire venture in total secrecy, without any meaningful input from Palestinians anywhere in the region or the world. Nevertheless, the move is intriguing because it seems to do three novel things at once:
1) 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 delegitimized leadership that represents a small number of Palestinians, imagine what could happen if a united Palestinian leadership that represented a genuine national consensus were to rally widespread Arab and other friendly support for a major global initiative to achieve Palestinian and Arab rights.
2) It breaks the stranglehold that Israel and the United States 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 United States now appear politically isolated and diplomatically impotent, unable to stop, slow down or modify in any way the Palestinian initiative. The desperation of the American-Israeli governments is best seen in their almost farcical moves last week to have the American Mideast adviser Dennis Ross and the 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, which is one reason why American-mediated bilateral diplomacy has failed so consistently for decades. Sending us Ross-Blair is not a serious initiative; it is a gross insult.
3) 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, giving Israelis and Arabs their due rights. The shift to the UN or other international fora will highlight the many important legal, ethical and practical issues that have to be addressed -- including land, natural resources, human rights, refugee rights, and the use of force -- in order to achieve the desired state of peace and coexistence, instead of assuring Israel’s security and adjusting to its colonization exploits as the starting and end points of diplomacy.
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