The Palestinian drive for statehood status at the United Nations injects new uncertainty into an already volatile Middle East, threatening to further isolate Israel and diminish already dwindling U.S. influence in the region.

Barring some last-minute breakthrough that would revive negotiations or otherwise advance their national aspirations, Palestinian officials appear bent on seeking, at a minimum, recognition as a nonmember state from the U.N. General Assembly.


That would allow “Palestine” to join a variety of international bodies and conventions and use them to oppose policies connected with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem – a tactic that David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, calls “lawfare”.

Israel, already reeling from the expulsion of its ambassador from Turkey and the withdrawal of nearly all its diplomats from Cairo after anti-Israel riots last weekend, is bracing for more turmoil.

Although Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has promised not to allow violent protests, demonstrations could get out of hand – especially if the Palestinian bid for statehood is introduced at the U.N. Security Council where it faces a certain U.S. veto.

Retired Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, former head of intelligence for the Israel Defence Forces, warned Monday that unrest “will not be limited to the West Bank”. Speaking at The Washington Institute, where he is currently a senior fellow, Yadlin said, “The whole Middle East can go on fire. The law of unintended consequences is going to work hard in coming months.”

Throughout the region, governments have been toppled or are on the defensive against popular unrest. While the Palestinian issue did not figure in any of the uprisings that have marked the Arab Spring so far, it is a deeply felt issue of Arab and Muslim identity. The inability of countries such as Egypt to broker Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and creation of a Palestinian state has long been a source of grievance and humiliation.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute, has gone so far as to warn that the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty – the foundation for Israeli security – is “hanging by a thread” in a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to do well in upcoming parliamentary elections and “no major political figure left on Egypt’s national scene [is] willing to defend peace with Israel.”

Israel’s growing isolation is also the result of its own policies.

While it has blamed its troubles with Turkey on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outsized regional ambitions, Israeli- Turkish relations began their downward trajectory following a massive Israeli assault on Gaza in late 2008. Ties have worsened since Israel killed eight Turks and a Turkish American aboard a ship trying to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has refused to apologise for those deaths, leading Turkey to downgrade diplomatic relations.

On the Palestinian front, Israel implemented a partial moratorium on settlement construction for 10 months but refused to extend the restrictions last year, leading Abbas to withdraw from talks after only two weeks. Israel has not tabled any parametres for a settlement and has rejected using its 1967 borders, with agreed land swaps, as the basis for a two-state solution. U.S. President Barack Obama proposed this in a speech in May that was harshly criticised by Netanyahu and U.S. supporters of Netanyahu’s hardline stance.

The Palestinian decision to go to the U.N. was sparked by a belief that nothing would come from negotiations with Netanyahu’s right-wing government and that Obama – battling for re-election – would not be in a position to do more to pressure Israel for at least the next year. Abbas also seeks to placate his own restive constituents, who are weary of living in sovereign limbo. However, his decision could spark a cutoff in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, which governs portions of the West Bank.

Hind Khoury, a former Palestinian ambassador to France and minister for Jerusalem affairs, said the move would improve Palestinian leverage for future negotiations.

“I am tired of being a hostage of internal U.S. politics and Israeli politics,” she told the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank, last week. “One of the major problems has been the lack of any deterrence to force Israel to act within international law.”

Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank, Monday that there will be “a war of attrition by the international community… against the U.S. effort to protect Israel from the consequences of its own actions in the occupied territories.”

Among Arab and Muslim states, U.S. opposition to the Palestinian gambit reinforces the view that Washington and Tel Aviv are joined at the hip and that the United States will not stand up even for its own policies – such as opposing Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Former Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, warned Monday in an op-ed in The New York Times that as a result of U.S. rejection of the Palestinian U.N. move, “American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region. Moreover, Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has.”

Saudi experts say that the kingdom is unlikely to retaliate against the United States in any specific way, but that Washington’s actions will further diminish what was once a solid partnership.

Freeman said the relationship had become “transactional”, with each issue dealt with on a case-by-case basis. While Saudi Arabia continues to rely on the United States for its security and cooperates closely on counterterrorism, it looks to Asia for most of its trade and has profound disagreements with Washington over the introduction of democracy in countries such as Bahrain and Syria, he said.

Quoting an old Chinese proverb, Freeman added, “We are sleeping in the same bed but dreaming different dreams.”

Barbara Slavin is a nonresident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council and member of its Iran Task Force, former senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today and former Mideast correspondent for The Economist. This article originally appeared on

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