Zvi Barel
Haaretz (Opinion)
August 17, 2011 - 12:00am

What is the critical mass of people who must be killed for the 'international community' to act?

How long will the Syrian protesters wait until the United States and its allies deign to intervene in their slow massacre? What is the critical mass of people who must be killed for the "international community" to act? When there's an earthquake, countries jostle each other to be visibly first in line with rescue forces for the victims; when thousands were killed in Darfur, the "community" went into deep hibernation until roused to assist.

In Syria, the barometer of bloodshed is still not a cause for concern. Condemnation, scolding and a few weak sanctions made it clear to President Bashar Assad that he's still far from danger. Against Muammar Gadhafi, Washington quickly raised a military coalition. It called on Hosni Mubarak to resign; in Yemen it stirred things so as to prevent the return of its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to Sana'a. And in Syria? The key statement, "Assad has to go," is still stuck in Washington's throat.

The rational explanations for American restraint are not to be taken lightly: concern over Iran's response; the desire to avoid putting a Western umbrella over a popular revolt so as not to impair its legitimacy; concern over the status of the United States in the Middle East if it finds itself facing a new front after Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, Washington must take "the day after" into consideration. But understanding for the considerations of "the day after" is what makes possible a murderous "today."

The Syrians are not the only ones who realize that Washington prefers to be an observer and to sit this one out. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' statement that on September 20, he intends to request the United Nations officially recognize Palestine as an independent state says all too clearly that the Palestinians have despaired of active American involvement in getting Israel to budge.

No practical steps have emerged for the Palestinians from President Barack Obama's visionary statements - not a freeze on settlement construction, not an outline of borders and not even an invitation to the White House. Abbas apparently understands that as in Syria, Washington will wait for reality to do its job, and reality is waiting for the "day after."

Abbas decided rightfully to go to the UN, and that Israel cannot have a monopoly on unilateral steps. Not only does he have nothing to lose; his move could also force Washington to accept decisions it has managed to avoid. For example, will Washington be able to withstand a large majority of UN members recognizing a Palestinian state? How will it explain its opposition? By saying that it preferred negotiation and not a unilateral initiative? What has the U.S. done to further such negotiations? Let's assume that Washington persists in an approach contradicting American policy - the policy that raises the banner of "two states for two peoples"; that it votes against recognition of a Palestinian state. Will it also support sanctions Israel imposes on that state? How will the U.S. protect Israel from sanctions against it?

That's the "day after" Washington can anticipate if it does not recognize a Palestinian state. And we have not even begun to talk about the uprising expected in Palestine if the bid for recognition is rejected.

Washington, dragged along by Israel, finds itself having to respond to a Palestinian initiative intended to deprive the U.S. of exclusivity in dealing with the Israeli-Arab conflict. The UN, which has never played a significant role in the conflict, has caught the hot potato, and its decision will be binding on the U.S., whether or not Washington wants it.

The only a scenario Israel sees is one in which the Palestinians start a third intifada, and Israel is preparing for that the way preparations are made for mass demonstrations. The Israel Defense Forces are ready, as usual, for any eventuality. But the statesmen are not. An intifada that is unlikely to occur will be the least of Israel's worries.

The very ability of a Palestinian Authority, which is not an independent country, to circumvent the world's greatest power and impose on that power its "day after" will ultimately determine Israel's position vis-a-vis the U.S. and the latter's standing in the region. The American giant that refused to deal with Syria, that shows indifference to what is happening in the West Bank, is losing its garden.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017