Shifting sands in the Middle East - Irfan Husain - Saturday 16th April 2011

AS the winds of change sweep through the Middle East, no state in the region is immune. Even Fortress Israel is bracing for rough weather ahead.
The threat the Zionist state faces does not come from the ineffectual Qassam rockets fired from Gaza, but from the expectation that the occupied West Bank will declare itself an independent state at the opening session of the General Assembly in September.
It is widely expected that the Palestinian state will be recognised by a large number of the international community. Although this largely symbolic act will do little to reduce the oppressive weight of the illegal occupation, it will place Israel in the embarrassing position of holding and colonising a member of the United Nations.
There are voices in Israel warning of the danger from this move. While Prime Minister Netanyahu is aware of the implications of this Palestinian step, he is unwilling to move towards serious negotiations. The basic demand that Israel cease settlement-building on occupied territory remains unacceptable to Tel Aviv. And the Obama administration continues to be reluctant to use its leverage to persuade the Israeli government to enter meaningful talks.
In the absence of any positive signals from either the Americans or the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority is left with no option but to declare unilateral statehood and hope for worldwide recognition. A recent editorial in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli daily, captures Netanyahu’s dilemma well:
“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is assimilating too slowly the possibility — he calls it a danger — that come September, the world will recognise an independent Palestinian state.
“One may dispute the idea that such international recognition and the establishment of such a state are a threat to Israel.… But there is no disputing that the steps Netanyahu proposes to ‘thwart’ the internationalisation of the Israel-Palestine conflict — unilateral withdrawal or an international peace conference to renew negotiations — are at best insufficient and at worst another public relations show … Hiding behind it is the intention to present Israel as ready for concessions that are insufficient and an attempt to blame the Palestinians for the failure of the process….”
It must be noted that Haaretz does not speak for the majority of Israelis who generally oppose any major concessions to the Palestinians. Nevertheless, there is an element of disquiet over the changes taking place in the neighbourhood, and how they are likely to impact Israel. In this context, there might well be a growing willingness to make peace with the Palestinians.
Thus far, there has been little internal or external pressure on the Israeli government to end the decades-long occupation. The
status quo has suited Tel Aviv and the half million Israeli settlers who have colonised large swathes of occupied Palestinian land.
Oddly, the dispute has not figured in the widespread protests sweeping the Middle East. Even though Egypt and Jordan have cut deals with Israel, demonstrators have not shouted slogans condemning their leaders for these pacts. And nor is there a demand that the new governments, whenever they are formed, should abrogate the peace treaties and other understandings with Israel.
Perhaps this exclusion of Israel from the Middle East ferment is a sign that Arabs have largely come to terms with the presence of their Zionist neighbour. While their sympathy for the Palestinian people remains steadfast, they do not wish to sidetrack their movement to usher in democracy. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that once popularly elected governments are in place, they would add their weight to securing a Palestinian state.
In this high-stake poker game, one of the most potent cards Israel holds is the enmity dividing the Palestinian side. As long as Hamas and the Palestinian Authority remain at daggers drawn, Tel Aviv can claim, with some justification, that it has nobody to talk to. Hamas, with its refusal to accept the existence of Israel, provides ammunition to the state’s supporters in the West.
But certain long-term trends are working against Israel’s interests. The weakening of its ties with Turkey, as well as the possibility of a genuinely popular government in Egypt, both represent a weakening of its strategic position in the region. The possibility of another humanitarian flotilla sailing from Turkey to Gaza next month is a reminder that occupied Palestine is still high on the agenda for many peace activists.
Thus far, one of the factors that has weighed so heavily in Israel’s favour in western minds is that it is the only democracy in a sea of despotic Arab states. But once popular governments replace ageing dictators, the balance will shift, and morally, Israel will stand isolated. Whether this translates into greater diplomatic support for Palestine remains to be seen.
Understandably, many Israelis wish the Palestinian problem would just go away. Living as they do in a prosperous state, they are weary of the endless conflict. Indeed, it hardly affects any of them directly as the security wall has greatly reduced the threat of terrorist attacks. But in a case of the tail wagging the dog, the presence of a large number of settlements on occupied territory blocks a negotiated peace that would be acceptable to the Palestinians.
No political party in Israel today can announce the withdrawal of the state to its pre-1967 borders. To do so would be tantamount to political suicide. The settlers and their right-wing supporters in Israel constitute a powerful lobby for maintaining the status quo. Herein lies the dilemma for any would-be peacemaker.
Nevertheless, the broad contours of a deal exist: with land swaps to compensate the Palestinians for the larger settlements contiguous with the Israeli border, there is an agreement waiting to be signed. Some kind of joint sovereignty over Jerusalem, and a token right of return for Palestinians driven from their homes in 1948, would complete the compromise solution.
This would be far from perfect for the Palestinians, but it is the best they can hope for. When you are bargaining from a position of weakness, you cannot hold out for the maximum. Israel would be well advised to go for such a deal before things change even more dramatically in the Middle East.

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