The Palestinian bid for statehood at this week’s United Nations General Assembly meeting could well trigger the perfect storm in the Middle East. As if the tempestuous relations between Israel and the Palestinians needed added turbulence, Turkey has entered the fray as the defender of the Palestinians and aspiring leader of the Arab-Islamic world. Increasingly marginalized in the Middle East, the United States, the erstwhile regional balancer, now faces a dilemma in part of its own making.
Despite the last-minute efforts of American diplomatic envoys and the other three members of the so-called Middle East Quartet (the UN, the European Union, and Russia) Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has firmly declared his intention to seek full membership in the UN. His decision, which was immediately denounced by Israel, reflects his frustration with the deadlocked peace talks, which he said had reached a “dead end.”
Abbas hopes to achieve from the UN what he has failed to accomplish in his discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But the Palestinians have presented Israel with a mixed message. While Abbas and Fatah have endeavored to reach a peaceful solution to the dispute, Hamas has wantonly lobbed missiles at Israeli towns and cities. Even if the two sides were to reach an agreement, it is by no means certain that Hamas, which controls Gaza, would support it. Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel’s existence, and it is a safe bet that it would not accede to the absolute security guarantees that must be part of a final settlement for any Israeli government.
Still, it is hard not to sympathize with Abbas. Although Netanyahu has repeatedly announced that he is prepared to negotiate in earnest, he has aggressively expanded Israeli settlements. It was Netanyahu’s refusal last year to extend the six-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank that motivated Abbas to take his case to the UN. In his unremitting expansion of Israeli settlements, Netanyahu has not only exhibited his disdain for UN Security Council Resolution 242, he has emasculated Abbas before the Palestinian people and unwisely strengthened the hand of Hamas. Netanyahu has disingenuously defended his position on the spurious ground that Abbas’s insistence on a freeze demonstrated that he was not serious about resolving the dispute. But the Palestinian demand for an end to new settlements is not new, and it was endorsed by Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
Netanyahu was warned of the “grave consequences” that would follow if Abbas pursues his initiative in the UN. According to reported diplomatic sources, some hard-line members of his cabinet such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have intimated that Israel could annex major Jewish settlements in the West Bank in retaliation. Some are considering breaking off all ties with the Palestinian Authority.
The Netanyahu government’s vituperative campaign against the Palestinian initiative is further isolating Israel. As a consequence of the Arab Awakening and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, the government has lost its staunch Egyptian ally. It has also needlessly alienated Turkey, its other friend in the region. Netanyahu’s refusal to offer even a tepid apology to Turkey for the Gaza flotilla incident – especially since the UN investigating body concluded that the Israeli response, though justified to enforce its naval blockade, was excessive and unreasonable – was both churlish and self-destructive.
Turkey is not the innocent victim it pretends to be, however. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has exploited the UN decision to satisfy his ambition of a Turkish-led Middle East. Recklessly claiming that the loss of Turkish lives in the Gaza incident was “a cause for war,” Erdogan has threatened to send warships to protect future aid convoys. Erdogan’s vocal support for Palestinian justice may well be sincere, but it also reflects his desire to capitalize on the Arab Awakening’s admiration for Turkey’s domestic success and its willingness to stand up to Israel. The consequences of Turkish opportunism will become uncomfortably palpable if hostilities resume between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab world calls on Ankara to defend its interests.
The storm that is brewing in the Middle East might be less worrisome if the United States could be counted on to play a more assertive diplomatic role. President Barack Obama announced his intention to do just that shortly after taking office, but American influence in the region is clearly declining. Netanyahu quickly took Obama’s measure (just as he did with George W. Bush), and the leaders of the people’s revolts in the Arab world all but ignored the administration, which was slow to respond in any event. Now the president finds himself in a quandary. Having vainly attempted to dissuade Abbas from his course, and having pledged his support to Israel, he has promised to veto the Palestinian gambit in the Security Council. But that veto will be seen by the energized Arab street as further capitulation to Israel. Support for Israel may prove costlier still if hostilities erupt between it and Turkey, a NATO ally.
Part of the blame for this predicament lies with Obama and his administration, which has failed to develop a strategic framework and a coherent foreign policy. Congressional Republicans and GOP presidential candidates have compounded the problem. In their boundless efforts to embarrass the president at every turn, they have become a cheer team for Netanyahu rather than defenders of the national interest, which has served to reinforce the prime minister’s intransigence. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has accused Obama of “throw[ing] Israel under the bus.” Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachman has warned that “a curse” will “comes into play” if we reject Israel.
It is possible that a new and even more destructive crisis in the Middle East can still be averted, but that would require the kind of leadership that seems nowhere on display.
Hugh De Santis is a strategic analyst and international consultant. He is a former career officer in the Department of State and chair of the department of national security strategy at the National War College.