January 2011- the new Palestinian “Nakba”?

A guest post by AKUS

That old axiom of Abba Eban’s – “The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” – may once again be the best description of the latest misfortune to befall the Palestinians. Obsessed with the new idea of demanding recognition of a Palestinian state they missed the chance to reach a negotiated settlement with Israel in 2008 with Olmert and 2010 under US pressure with Netanyahu and have been swept aside by a tidal wave of events in January.

While far away in Latin America countries are rushing to recognize a non-existent Palestinian state on the non-existent 1967 “borders” (the 1949 armistice lines), closer to home all attention has shifted to greater issues. Had the Palestinians seized their opportunity to engage in negotiations with Israel as Obama requested during the 9 month building freeze, and better yet, signed an agreement, they would be looking at a real state rather than one that exists only in the blogosphere. Better yet, had they accepted Olmert’s map and offers, they would be two years down the road to developing whatever that little patch of land on the West Bank would look like as the Palestinian state (Gaza, of course, would still be under Hamas control and no-one knows what its future will be). Now they can only sit on the sidelines and watch greater events capture the world’s attention.

In January, the roof caved in on the Palestinian Authority – a second “nakba” again of their own making, once again, as internal quarrels opened the lid on an ugly reality so reminiscent of the Arab politics of 1948. The Pallypapers destroyed what little credibility the leadership had. The Arabs and the rest of the world saw the leadership saying one thing in public in English, another in Arabic to their people, and a third to Israel and the US in negotiations – the last being, by and large, acceptance of many of the positions that Israel and the US had presented for years of not decades since there really are no logical alternatives if one wishes to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Even worse from the Palestinian perspective, the EU countries’ obsession with “Palestine” was marginalized as the revolt in Tunisia occurred, followed by the huge demonstrations in Egypt which may yet bring the Mubarak regime to an end. Suddenly, it was clear that the Palestinian issue is not the most important issue in the Middle East, nor would settling it lead to a new reality in the Middle East. Far from it – the issues in the Arab world are internal sociopolitical issues that play on the Palestinian issue as a distraction from real and serious problems the dinosaurs leading their father–son dynasties face.

Less noted are similar events in Yemen, and, most importantly for the West Bank Arabs, Jordan. The global stock markets took a serious hit on Friday 28th as traders wondered what the effect on oil supplies from the Middle East would be – a matter of far greater concern than the Palestinian issue. The fact that Egypt controls the Suez Canal, through which a huge proportion of Europe’s oil supplies and commerce with the Far East pass, with Yemen in turmoil at the entrance to the Red Sea leading to Suez, only adds to the anxiety. Will Europe consider a repeat of the 1956 effort, perhaps this time with American support, to take over the Suez Canal by force?

News from Jordan has not been prominently displayed – perhaps because there is not enough blood in the streets yet to satisfy the ghouls running the international news organizations – but clips showing the demonstrations for food and jobs indicate that all is far from well in the Kingdom. What is particularly interesting is that the demonstrators were waving large green flags – the flag of Hamas. Approximately seventy percent of Jordan’s population is generally described as “Palestinian” and King Abdullah holds on to power by virtue of an iron Bedouin fist in a velvet glove. The glove came off during “Black September” in 1970.

Should the demonstrations gather force and Abdullah react as his father did to preserve himself, the issues of the West Bank Palestinians will once again be made trivial by comparison. If, on the other hand, the Jordanian Hamas supporters manage to topple Abdullah, where then will the PA go, trapped between Hamas in Gaza and Hamas in Jordan? Will Jordan then become a Hamas-controlled Palestinian state, and, if so, what will the future of the West Bank be? Israel will not agree to a second Gaza right next to the Green Line. Better the current situation than kassams flying into Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the initiative that Abbas and company launched to take their demand for recognition to the United Nations has been sidetracked by the momentous events in the Middle East.  While, to quote Eban again, “If Algeria introduced a resolution declaring that the earth was flat and that Israel had flattened it, it would pass by a vote of 164 to 13 with 26 abstentions”, it is possible that even now the Islamic states might move on a resolution in the General Assembly in order to distract their own people from the events in Egypt and elsewhere, the US had already made it clear that no such resolution would get past the Security Council. Equally, other Security Council players might agree that there is enough uncertainty in the oil-critical Middle East without playing the Palestinian card at this time.

Israel has its own concerns. Although the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan have never been cordial, the fact is that Mubarak and the two Jordanian Kings have kept the peace with Israel for thirty years despite the Palestinian issues and the problems with Lebanon. The Assads, even in the absence of an agreement, have done the same. The usual tactic in Arab countries that cannot resolve their problems has been to turn the attention of their citizens towards Israel and to promote the Palestinian issue as the great injustice that must be resolved. A new government in Egypt is unlikely to do much better than Mubarak in the short-term to solve Egypt’s enormous economic and social problems.

When the euphoria wears off, the new government may follow the classic Arab line and ratchet up the tensions with Israel. Fortunately, Sinai lies as a buffer between Israel and Egypt, but with Hamas supported by Egypt, rather than bottled up in Gaza, Egypt may once again use them as a proxy to attack Israel and create popular support as it did with the fedayeen up until 1967 even if the new regime does not repeat Nassar’s mistake of introducing the army into Sinai.

One odd ray of light for the Palestinians hoping to create a state on the West Bank was expressed this week by Bill Clinton, speaking at Davos. He claimed “If I were in Israel and I had any influence, I’d want to make that deal now,” and that Israel would benefit by settling the Palestinian conflict – “they’ve got the best partner in the West Bank that they’ve ever had.”


His idea, apparently, is to remove the Palestinian issue from the table and put Israel in a positive position to do business with the new Arab governments that may emerge in the countries surrounding Israel. He pointed out, as an example, that Israel will be the first country in the world to have 100,000 electric vehicles on the road, and the ability for Israel to work with new and more democratic Arab states could be of great benefit to both sides – a huge market for Israel, and access to the world’s best technology for Arabs not just in the West Bank, but throughout the Middle East. However, he did not, or could not, explain how Israel could get the Palestinians back to negotiations and to sign an agreement. It does take both parties to accomplish this, after all.

I do not altogether follow his logic. The events of January have shown that the popular mantra that the Palestinian issue is at the core of the Middle East’s problems is false, just as the Pallypapers showed that, by and large, the PA does not regard the settlements as an insurmountable issue, but rather one that can be negotiated in terms of location, land swaps, and border adjustments, as Israel has been trying to do for decades. However, Clinton, after all, created the outline for what will undoubtedly be the final agreement between Israel and the Arabs if – when – it ever happens and has dealt with all these parties and one has to weigh his ideas carefully.

Meanwhile, like a toy train that runs round and round on the same small set of rails going nowhere, the Quartet is due to meet next month to discuss the settlements. Israel has apparently accepted Tony Blair’s request to pre-empt the meeting with a package of concessions on supplies to Gaza and removal of roadblocks on the West Bank. Will the Quartet continue to play the tired old tunes on their fiddle over the Palestinian issue while the Middle East burns? But who in the EU can take the Palestinian Authority seriously in January 2011 after the revelations of the Pallypapers? Can they still consider it critical that Israel builds a few apartments in Har Homa compared to the tectonic shifts in the Arab world, and the possible disruption of their energy supplies and commercial traffic through the Suez Canal?

To quote Eban yet again:

“Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.”

Perhaps we are reaching a point where wisdom about what is really important in the Middle East will prevail. But it is not at all certain that the wise decisions will favor the Palestinians.

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