Ian Bremmer
Reuters (Opinion)
August 3, 2011 - 12:00am

As violent protests rock the Arab world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government has tried to keep a low profile. It has largely succeeded. That’s about to change.

This year’s upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East is not quite finished. As President Saleh recovers from injuries suffered during an attack on Yemen’s presidential palace, the country remains plagued with protests and crackdowns. Libya’s Qaddafi clings to power, Syria’s Assad copes with surges of public anger, and Egypt’s zigzag path toward democracy reminds us how hard it is to fill the hole left behind by a castoff autocrat.

Israelis have watched closely from the sidelines to better understand what all this turmoil means for their future. As the dust begins to settle, it has become clear that they have plenty to worry about. Populism is taking root in the Middle East, a region where ordinary people have been forced for years to scream in unison to make themselves heard. Now they find that they have the power to bring about change. In response, Arab leaders—the newly elevated, those clinging to power, and even those simply facing a more uncertain future—are now listening to public opinion much more closely.

That’s bad news for Israel, because one of the most popular causes across the Middle East is a more genuine and vigorous defense of Palestinians. The Arab world’s uprisings have had virtually nothing to do with Israel. They are spontaneous expressions of public outrage that governments are corrupt, that average citizens have no power to do anything about it, that living standards aren’t rising, and that nothing ever changes. But the protests have now empowered large numbers of people who also want to see Israel face enormous political pressure.

They’re about to get their wish. In New York next month, Palestinians will seek UN recognition of statehood, and the General Assembly will likely vote to give it to them. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, is well aware that tides are moving in his favor. Not content with a symbolic declaration of his people’s right to form a state, Abbas has pledged to seek UN member status for the new state of Palestine. That’s almost certainly a bridge too far, but he most likely will win enough votes to move the Palestinian Authority from “non-member entity status” to “non-member state status.” The difference is important because, at the very least, it would give the PA greater standing at the UN and other international organizations. It’s also an important psychological achievement that will more deeply legitimize a Palestine state in the eyes of many nations.

America is Israel’s only reliable ally, but the White House wants no part of the UN theatrics. President Obama would welcome an opportunity to prove his commitment to support Israel, and he’ll make clear both Washington’s opposition to a General Assembly move and U.S. intent to veto in the Security Council any Palestinian effort to acquire full UN membership as a state. But he’d also like a chance to back the Arab world’s lunge toward self-determination. He won’t be able to support both sides in September, and he faces much more immediate challenges at home. Reviving the US economy, creating jobs, managing a draw-down of troops from Afghanistan while battling increasingly aggressive Republicans will leave the president with little extra time and political capital to spend on Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic fireworks.

The bad news for Israel is that Palestinians are aware of the limits on what they can get, and will likely focus their fight on the General Assembly, not the Security Council, where Obama wouldn’t cast America’s veto. Add the famously troubled relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, and Israel is about to look more isolated than ever.


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