Middle East teeters on the brink as Palestine and protests converge

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. 

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

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