U.S. and Israel - An Uneasy Partnership

Written by Tayyab Siddiqui  •  May 2011 PDF Print E-mail

The Middle East peace process having remained dormant for twenty two months since November 2007 was revived in September 2010 after intensive diplomatic efforts by President Obama. The talks were, however, abandoned just after five days as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu refused to extend the freeze on Jewish settlements and the Palestinians declined to continue negotiations unless settlement construction.

The winds of revolutionary change sweeping across the Middle East since the beginning of this year have radically altered the strategic landscape of the entire region, offering opportunities for a stable and equitable political system. A significant manifestation of the new mood and mindset is the reconciliation move between warring factions of Palestinians in the form of the Unity Accord signed in Cairo on May 4.

Fatah and Hamas, the two main bitter rivals, announced putting aside their differences to create an interim unity government and to hold general elections within one year. The agreement has revived hopes of positive change in the Palestinians' fortunes and opened a new chapter in their struggle for an independent state. The Unity Accord, besides setting up an interim government also provides for integration of security forces of the two main factions – Fatah and Hamas; "a turning point not only for the concept but also for the Palestinian and regional situation."

The reaction to the accord from Israel and the U.S. has, as expected, been negative.  Instead of recognizing the changing political contours of the region and emerging realities, both have remained engaged in negative diplomacy, insisting on a policy that has failed to bear fruit till now and indeed has been a catalyst for the Unity Accord. The Palestinian Authority leadership, sorely disappointed at the continuing stalemate and the inability of the West and U.S. to force Israel to pursue the peace process, was deeply enraged at the U.S. veto in February against the UNSC resolution urging Israel to stop settlements. 

The veto sparked large demonstrations in the West Bank against the U.S. Palestinian youth held massive rallies, making passionate calls for reconciliation and unity which resonated throughout the occupied territories. Salam Fayyad, the PA Prime Minister, floated the idea of forming a unity government with Hamas which, through the good offices of the Egyptian government resulted in the Unity Accord being signed in Cairo on May 4.

Netanyahu declared the unity pact as a tremendous blow to peace and said "…when Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) embraces Hamas, an organization that praises Osama bin Laden as great martyr and is committed to Israel's destruction – that is a tremendous setback for peace and great advance to terror." Netanyahu carried this message to London, Paris and Washington, where he was invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

During his talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he urged them to pressure Abbas "to completely cancel the agreement." He received little encouragement as Cameron regarded the unity move as a "step forward" and Sarkozy has publicly announced his intention to recognize the Palestinian state if the talks do not make any headway by September. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice called on the Palestinian leadership, asking them to return to direct talks. "Negotiations between the parties remain the only path to a solution to resolve all issues and establishes a sovereign state of Palestine along side a secure state of Israel." The appeal could only draw contempt, given the previous history of direct talks and total and uncritical support of the U.S. administration to Israel which has so far stymied any solution to the Palestinian problem.

The Palestinian efforts for an independent Palestinian state are gaining momentum. President Mahmoud Abbas has announced that he will seek recognition of statehood in the September UNGA session. A UN report has endorsed a Palestinian state stating that the Palestinian Authority "has built up progress in development of areas such as governance, rule of law, health and social services and infrastructure up to a level expected of a state." The Unity Accord would further bolster this.  Earlier the World Bank and the IMF have made similar assessments.

There is growing recognition even in Israel of the imperative need for a Palestinian state comprising the occupied territories. A group of 60 most distinguished Israeli citizens, including intellectuals, artists and literati – winners of Israel Prize – the most prestigious national award, have signed a declaration on their independence day endorsing creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of the 1967 borders. The declaration held that an end to Israeli occupation "will liberate two people and open the way to lasting peace."

The influential Israeli daily Haaretz in an editorial comment has observed that reconciliation with the Palestinians offers Israel a strategic opportunity and has criticized Netanyahu for his opposition to the unity move. The paper further states: "The Palestinians hope this recognition will advance their liberation from the Israeli occupation. Israel… has begun an aggressive campaign to destroy the reconciliation, as if a situation in which Hamas quarrels with Fatah provided greater security, or as if Israel had been willing to sign a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority before the two factions reconciled."

These two arguments are nothing more than a sleight of hand intended to disguise the traditional Israeli view that a union of the two movements is a threat.

Similar sound advice has been tendered by an erstwhile ally of Israel.  President Abdullah Gul of Turkey in a New York Times op-ed has the following to say: "I call upon the leaders of Israel to approach the peace process with a strategic mindset, rather than resorting to short-sighted tactical maneuvers. Sticking to the unsustainable status quo will only place Israel in greater danger.  History has taught us that demographics is the most decisive factor in determining the fate of nations. The new generation of Arabs is much more conscious of democracy, freedom and national dignity." 

In such a context, Israel cannot afford to be perceived as an apartheid island surrounded by an Arab sea of anger and hostility. Many Israeli leaders are aware of this challenge and therefore believe that creating an independent Palestinian state is imperative. A dignified and viable Palestine, living side by side with Israel, will not diminish the security of Israel, but fortify it.

History is witness that leaders who in their hubris and arrogance do not reckon such facts place themselves in the way of harm. Israel's intransigence will inevitably lead to more instability and insecurity in the region. 

Tayyab Siddiqui is the former Pakistani Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Egypt and Switzerland.
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