Adil E. Shamoo
If conditions do not change quickly by the time of the U.S.-promised veto of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly on September 20, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could explode into a new uprising with hundreds of deaths. The recent attack of Palestinian extremists on a bus in the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat and the eager over-reaction of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu is a harbinger of what is to come.
The uprising will bring the United States into sharp conflict with not only the Palestinians but also the rest of the Arab world. A new Arab spirit is demanding that the rest of the world, especially the United States, treat Arabs with equal respect and dignity.
The Palestinian Struggle
The Palestinians will ask the upcoming UN General Assembly to vote for “non-member state” status for the Palestinians on September 20. Since this resolution bypasses the Security Council, the promised U.S. veto will not be operative. The least desirable choice for the United States is to vote no in the General Assembly. It would isolate the United States from the rest of the world community, which is expected to agree to the Palestinians' sought-after status. With the United States at its lowest popularity in the Arab world, this further isolation would only create additional challenges as the Arab Spring turns cloudy and many long-term challenges complicate U.S.-Arab relations.
The Palestinians have struggled for over 60 years to regain their rights, economic justice, and dignity. They have tried peaceful confrontation, military action, terrorism, and negotiation -- without any success. The 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza live in an open-air prison with the highest unemployment (45 percent) in the world, near-starving conditions, and little or no medical care. Israel even stops humanitarian flotillas from reaching Gaza. Another 1.5 million Palestinians live in Israel as second-class Israeli citizens. Do the Israelis consider the Palestinians as equal human beings?
The Israelis paint the conflict at every step as an existential threat. Israel has legitimate security concerns, which have been addressed as part of successive deals. The existential threat may have been true in the first few decades of Israel’s existence. However, most reasonable observers and many Israelis know that a demilitarized Palestinian state is not an existential threat. Israel has the upper hand militarily, and it has used it with a vengeance to suppress Palestinian aspirations. The Israelis are engaged in a policy of open-ended negotiation while confiscating and resettling Palestinian land.
President Obama has attempted to move the negotiations forward slightly by endorsing the blueprint used by previous administrations, namely the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps. But the Obama administration remains as reluctant as its predecessors to pressure its Israeli ally to negotiate in good faith. The Israeli lobby remains powerful on Capitol Hill, the State Department is staffed by strong supporters of Israel, and the U.S. media features a very few voices representing Arab concerns. It’s no surprise that U.S. policies rarely reflect Arab views.
Israel’s policy has increased its isolation in the Middle East and the rest of the world, everywhere in fact except in the United States.Turkey used to be the closest ally of Israel in the Middle East. But after the killing of nine Turkish citizens (one also having U.S. citizenship) in the Gaza flotilla raid last year and Israel’s refusal to apologize, the relationship between the two countries could not be any colder.
Playing Catch Up
U.S. foreign policy toward the Arab world has not changed to catch up with the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring is a result of centuries of occupation and indignity. Arabs are now more educated and more connected to the outside world. But instead of working with this new generation, the United States is trying to leverage its relationships with military contacts in Arab militaries to indirectly maneuver the Arab Spring in a way to sustain U.S. interests. Arabs can easily see the inconsistency of a U.S. policy that supports the overthrow of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi while taking no action in Bahrain and remaining silent about Saudi Arabia’s oppression.
The Arab Spring has forced the Arab people to face their reality of occupation, colonization, and U.S. and Western support of their corrupt regimes. The current crises in several Middle Eastern countries, such as those in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, and Iran are destabilizing the area. The U.S. veto of the Palestinian statehood resolution at the UN will further aggravate a difficult situation. This destabilization can become further inflamed if the Palestinian-Israeli conflict deteriorates into another massacre of the Palestinians by Israeli forces. Arab anger can easily be directed against the United States.
As a primary issue among Arabs, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains a barometer that shows the willingness of the United States to grant Arabs equal respect. At this tenuous time in the Middle East, the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military with U.S. acquiescence is explosive. But the United States can do something to change the situation. It can acknowledge the new realities in the Arab world by recognizing Palestinian self-determination at the UN. Treating Arabs as equals – rather than a people to be manipulated for political and economic gain – is a lesson of the Arab Spring that the United States can still learn.
- Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus
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