Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
September 21, 2011 - 12:00am

In the past week in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington my discussions on Mideast issues with a wide range of knowledgeable people confirm the view I have held for some time now: official American attitudes to the Middle East, especially on the Arab-Israeli conflict, are characterized by deep perplexity, contradiction and disarray. No wonder the region is in the midst of a historic transition that has radically shifted the center of gravity of political action and diplomatic control away from American-Israeli dominance, toward a greater role for Arab public opinion.

One reason for this change is the exaggerated focus on Israel and its wellbeing as the centerpiece of analysis in the United States, instead of a more honest approach that would view Israeli, Arab, Iranian and Turkish rights and wellbeing as critical and equally valid criteria of diplomatic action. Many analysts note Israel’s isolation, and some see that the U.S. has lost much of its former influence in the region. Rarely, however, are Israeli and American policies mentioned as elements that could have brought these two powerful countries to this moment when they are isolated and in many ways helpless in dealing with major regional issues.

Much of the public discussion and private talks I have engaged in have concentrated on the implications of the Palestinian move to ask the U.N. to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders (West Bank, Gaza, Arab East Jerusalem). Like everything else in the American political realm, this discussion is highly polarized and sharply defined by the arguments of the pro-Israel lobbies that effectively shape official policy in Washington. They have insisted that only direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians can bring about a Palestinian state, not taking the issue to the U.N.

The most significant aspect of this Palestinian move – visible in the parallel hysterical American-Israeli reaction – is that it shatters the diplomatic status quo that has prevailed for several decades, and seeks to replace it with something more productive and fair. Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues in the Palestinian leadership of the central highlands of the West Bank (for that is essentially all they control, and even there only partially) have made a dramatic move by taking the Palestinian issue to the U.N. for adjudication.

The consequences of a U.N. vote and possible retribution by Israel and the United States all remain unclear, as does, troublingly, the follow-up Palestinian political strategy after the U.N. process starts later this week. It is appropriate to criticize Abbas and his colleagues for conducting this venture in total secrecy, without meaningful input from Palestinians in the region or the world. Nevertheless, the move is intriguing because it seems to do three novel things at once.

First, it shows that Arabs, even the weak, divided, occupied and subjugated Palestinians, have the ability to initiate substantive political moves that could perhaps lead to useful results. If this were to be achieved by a largely discredited, isolated and broadly delegitimized leadership that represents a small number of Palestinians, imagine what could happen if a united Palestinian leadership that represented a genuine national consensus were to rally widespread Arab and other friendly support for a major global initiative to achieve Palestinian and Arab rights.

Second, it breaks the stranglehold that Israel and the U.S. have had for nearly four decades on diplomatic moves to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Long seen as the two strongest powers in this region, Israel and the U.S. now appear politically isolated and diplomatically impotent, unable to stop, slow down or modify in any way the Palestinian initiative.

The desperation of the American and Israeli governments was best seen in their almost farcical moves last week to have an American Mideast envoy, Dennis Ross, and the Quartet’s special envoy Tony Blair offer compromise proposals to induce the Palestinians to withdraw their U.N. bid and revert instead to American-mediated bilateral talks with Israel. Ross and Blair set the standard in intellectual and political dishonesty in Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy, which is a reason why American-mediated bilateral diplomacy has failed so consistently for decades. Sending us Ross-Blair is not a serious initiative; it is a gross insult.

And third, the statehood move forces all parties to explore new and more legitimate venues, such as working through the U.N., in which to adjudicate the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieve a permanent, comprehensive peace agreement that is fair to all concerned, giving Israelis and Arabs their due rights.

The shift to the U.N. or other international forums will highlight the many legal, ethical and practical issues that will have to be addressed – including land, natural resources, human rights, refugee rights, and the use of force – to achieve a desired state of peace and coexistence, instead of assuring Israel’s security and adjusting to its colonization exploits as the starting and ending points of diplomacy.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.


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