In Part I, I discussed the loss of US leadership that has been evident in the handling of the Libya conflict. This lack of leadership is the central factor in the emerging scramble to get a Palestinian state declared in 2011. Nothing, not even the “Arab spring” uprisings, is as important as the fact that US leadership in the “peace process” – and in the wider region – is increasingly meaningless.
The good news about that is that much could be averted with a change of front in Washington. Nothing has yet gone so far that a more effective diplomatic campaign by the US couldn’t bring positive results.
But things have gone a long way already. Events are moving fast, as with the tactical rapprochement this week of Fatah (which runs the Palestinian Authority) and Hamas (see here and here for perspective). This move, whatever its merits as a maneuver toward Palestinian statehood, would not have been undertaken if the PA had any real fear of US objections to its rapprochement with a terrorist organization.
As I outlined in a previous series of posts from 2009, the issue of “Palestine” is a geostrategic one for key governments and non-governmental leaders in the Islamic world. The aspirations of the Palestinian people are secondary; of primary importance is control of the territory adjacent to Israel. That means it matters to all the rival actors whose client(s) establish a Palestinian state, and how it’s done. The Hezbollah coup in Lebanon in January and the Arab Spring uprisings – particularly in Egypt – have thrown that up for grabs.
And that means the old analytical factors about this problem are outdated. If the US were still an active factor, one with its own positive agenda, predictions about how the regional actors will behave would be more reliable. But the shift of conditions has created a unique (and probably temporary) opportunity to establish a power structure on Israel’s perimeter – one that could include Egypt, a Palestinian state, Lebanon, and possibly even Syria. The game has changed. Old bets are off.
The question of who controls the territory adjacent to Israel is not, of course, “the” issue for the street demonstrators seeking new government in the Muslim Middle East. For most of them, from Iran to Algeria, what they’re participating in isn’t “about” controlling the borders of Israel. But many of those who seek to govern them, and/or to influence the outcomes in their countries, do have that objective in view. And it is their agenda, not the less coherent aspirations of the people, that will become policy.
Four groups are vying for the future of the Middle East: the Muslim Brotherhood; Iran and her clients (Syria and Hezbollah); the old-guard Arab leadership (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the PA, the Gulf emirates), of which there are fewer in power than there were three months ago; and Turkey. There is at present no monolithic bloc seeking to control the territory on Israel’s borders. Instead, what we see playing out in the region is the maneuvering of rivals for regional Islamic leadership.
The Gathering Storm
The milestones being planned by the different factions this year are, in ascending order of importance, the so-called “Third Intifada,” the 2011 Gaza flotilla, and the proposal for a UN vote to declare a Palestinian state in September. It’s important not to dismiss the Third Intifada plan or the Gaza flotilla. They are preliminary skirmishes in the same campaign as the one coalescing for a Palestinian statehood vote. They are intended to induce Israel to use force in self defense, and thus incur actionable condemnation.
The Third Intifada is planned for 15 May according to its now-infamous Facebook page (removed due to its violations of Facebook policies. Groups in the US and elsewhere have launched follow-on pages at separate sites). The Third Intifada movement bears the hallmark of a social-network insurgency, in part because it has been explicitly rejected (so far) by PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and in part because the burden of its public call is for “peaceful marches.”
If there is organized support behind it, the Muslim Brotherhood is the likely source: the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan called in March 2010 for a third intifada, and has been active in the protests across the Arab world in the last few months, especially in Egypt and Jordan. The Muslim Brotherhood’s disgust with existing Arab leadership has extended for some time to the PA and Fatah, and it would not hesitate to prejudice the political environment in which the PA operates if it expected to gain advantage by doing so.
A call has gone out in Egypt for mass demonstrations in support of the Third Intifada – on 13 May, two days before it’s supposed to erupt. The whole thing may fizzle: none of Israel, the PA, Egypt, or Jordan is likely to stand by and let the “Third Intifada” get out of hand. If it were going to be a stand-alone event, it probably wouldn’t amount to much. But given its timing, it may function instead as a kickoff for the 2011 Gaza flotilla.
Throughout February and March, the 2011 Gaza flotilla was reportedly being planned for the latter half of May. Bringing the Gaza flotilla in on the heels of the Third Intifada, assuming both events come off, will make for quite a difficult period for Israeli security forces. Hamas has been the Palestinian entity principally associated with the flotilla movement; there is no evidence that a central entity coordinated the two events to coincide. Their near-simultaneous timing would present a major challenge to Israel, however.
Two weeks ago, the flotilla’s Turkish sponsor – IHH, the terrorist-affiliated “humanitarian” group that sponsored the May 2010 flotilla – announced that the flotilla would be delayed until after Turkey’s upcoming national election in June. But recent updates have confirmed that the IHH and other sponsors all plan to get their ships underway in May. And although Gaza flotillas are a Hamas “deal,” Fatah officials were reported on 21 April to be planning to participate. This effectively makes the flotilla a part of Fatah’s campaign plan for September.
The flotillas do create a serious risk of maritime havoc created by terrorist groups, but it’s unlikely that Hamas will breach the “unarmed humanitarian” profile by resorting to military weaponry. Hezbollah could take advantage of the situation to launch a maritime attack, from its own separate motives – but while it’s in the middle of consolidating power in Lebanon, it’s unlikely to.
(The effect of that, if it’s not clear, is to sideline Iran’s client for this event. Iran’s internal turmoil – regime infighting that appears to involve a power struggle among Ahmadinejad, Ayatollah Khamenei’s son, and perhaps others – may well keep Iran out of the maneuver game through the early summer.)
The flotilla gambit is now being pushed by both the PA and Erdogan’s Turkey, political actors with a stake in the current order and a common objective: not of using overt force themselves, but of inducing Israel to use force in self-defense.
There is one favorable factor in the case of both the Third Intifada and the Gaza flotilla, and that is that simple chance has a fairly good record of preventing plans like these from coming off on schedule. European governments may also intervene in the departure plans of the flotilla ships as well.
Push for a Palestinian State Declaration in the UN
A number of Latin American nations have recognized a Palestinian state in the last few months; the EU and some of its member states are considering doing so. Russia and China have the diplomatic luxury of remaining strategically silent in 2011, having recognized a Palestinian state in principle more than 20 years ago.
That said, however, the plummeting effectiveness of US power changes perspectives on old questions. Russia and China may have recognized a Palestinian state in principle years ago, but they are not so keen on the idea of a UN unconstrained by the US, peremptorily declaring the boundaries of new states on disputed territory. Either of them could be hit by that wave. So could Turkey, India, and a number of other nations. In many of the cases, Muslim insurgencies are at issue; even Russia and China cannot feel invulnerable to the repercussions of a UN declaration on Palestinian borders. If the US doesn’t look like we’ll use our veto, it’s not out of the question for them to work behind the scenes to keep a vote from occurring.
Whoever is credited with the victory in creating a Palestinian state, however, will have an unmatched notch on his belt. Fatah has the most to lose from anyone else getting that credit, and made the first unambiguous move by throwing in with Hamas last week. The proposal for a Fatah-Hamas unity government violates the Oslo accords – Hamas being a terrorist organization – and Israel has terminated the disbursement of tax receipts to the PA because of this move. Congress has issued threats to cut off US aid to the PA if the deal goes through.
But it is telling that editorial opinion, in the English-language media of the Arab Middle East, has changed its tone in the last couple of months. This op-ed pieceat Egyptian news outlet Ahram Online (“A message to congress: keep your money”) is representative in being quite open about both disdain for the US, and the objective to eliminate Israel, a sentiment reserved, not so long ago, for Arabic-language editorials (enlarged pitch in original):
Finally, some advice to the PLO and its leadership. Don’t be obsequious or complacent vis-à-vis Israel or any of its obedient dogs. These entities have not one iota of morality or honesty, let alone justice, in their general outlook. They are willing to blackmail us to the last drop of our blood. They would embark on the unthinkable to keep us in a state of enslavement to Zionism.
Hence, you should be able to seriously threaten the Zionist regime, to dismantle the whole autonomous regime once and for all. Of course, any vestige of “security coordination” — which is shameful to the Palestinian conscience — must be terminated.
Fatah has, for now, assumed the pole position in the race to establish leadership on the Palestinian state question. The rapprochement with Hamas is a means of holding Fatah’s enemy close, hoping to prevent a separate power base from coalescing around him. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Muslim Brotherhood – all will have to decide how much to support Fatah leadership between now and September, or how much to covertly oppose it.
But the maneuvering is in its early stages, and no one wants to end up backing the loser. The outcome in Syria, where the Muslim Brotherhood would be a winner and Iran a loser if Assad fell, may be more decisive in lining up the scrimmage than almost anything else. The frustrating number of moving parts is a result of the absence of US leadership, and is something we will have to get used to as long as the Obama administration is with us.