x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

A UN showdown the Palestinians can't afford to lose

Each decade brings new complications to the Arab-Israeli dispute, but neither side is prepared to offer what the other side needs to have.

The Middle East is going to war again this week - thankfully this time it's only a public relations war as Israelis and Palestinians take their case and their cause before the UN General Assembly. The outcome of this new escalation in the 62-year conflict, however, could lead to a new round of violence as bloody as any of the military conflicts of Arabs and Israelis in the past.

Ever since the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced his intention to take the issue of Palestinian statehood to the world body in New York, both sides in this ever-expanding conflict have been gearing up for what is no doubt going to be a powerful showdown that may ultimately be decided on the streets of Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Since the announcement, both Israelis and Palestinians have been spending political currency in efforts to convince friends and foes of the importance of this vote, which the Palestinians expect will lead to the final stages of their tortuous road to an independent state. The problem, or at least part of it, is that the Israelis fear the same - that the Palestinians will be granted an independent state.

One could say that finally both sides appear to have something in common. But this is, however, about as close as the two sides are likely to get in the foreseeable future. Both Israelis and Palestinians have valid arguments, but the irony is that both sides fail drastically to understand the basic wants, needs and fears of the other.

After wandering in a political wilderness for more than six decades the Palestinians deserve a state to call their own and to join the international community by building a viable state based on democratic principles. Likewise, Israelis need to be able to live in peace and security with their neighbours.

But as Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, president of The Israel Project, notes, the road ahead is littered with more questions than answers. "Will a future Palestinian state be a peaceful neighbour … or will Israel continue to face daily rocket attacks?" she asks. "Will it (the Palestinian state) be controlled by the Palestinian Authority or Iran-backed Hamas? Will it be a durable and democratic state that will contribute to peace in the Middle East?"

Israel's knee-jerk reaction of rejecting a Palestinian state is understandable from the Israeli perspective, yet it is nonetheless an unrealistic and time-wasting position. And Israel does not have time on its side. With every passing decade the situation in the disputed territories becomes more complicated and attracts new players, and that in turn further complicates the situation.

No one could have predicted the degree to which Turkey and Iran would be drawn into the Middle East dispute. Before the Islamic Revolution no one would have foreseen that Iran, once a strong and faithful ally and supporter of US policy in the Middle East - and even a friend of Israel - would become the most vehement anti-Israeli country in the region.

Similarly, no one could have predicted that Turkey, a Nato member and staunch US ally, would turn so drastically against Israel, a country with which it had very close cooperation in a number of fields, including military and financial areas. Similarly, today no one can predict what other country or political or military force will be drawn into the conflict in years to come.

So while it is time for a Palestinian state to emerge in the Middle East, the birth of that nation must imperatively occur in a peaceful environment. A return to violence would be catastrophic for everyone.

Encouraged and revitalised by the Arab uprisings, where simple citizens have managed to overthrow three presidents in the Arab world (in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya) and a fourth (in Syria) is teetering on the brink of collapse, a return of the Palestinian intifada would be bloodier this time.

On Israel's southern border with Egypt, Hamas would fan the flames of discord. On Israel's northern frontier the pro-Iranian Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah would be only too happy to join in the fight. Igniting the Lebanese front would also benefit the Syrian regime, which would welcome the distraction from its internal troubles and jump at the opportunity to regurgitate the "war against Israel" card to continue its witch hunt of dissidents and opposition members.

All of that said, recognition by the international community of a Palestinian state will change very little on the ground where the existence of a Palestinian state is already a fait accompli. The Palestinian Authority controls much of what takes place in the occupied territories. They maintain a Palestinian police force, they issue Palestinian travel documents, they collect taxes in their areas of operations and they have an established internal security force.

The concern for Israel and its supporters is of course security for the Jewish state. That is understandable. The dilemma is that many in the Arab world fail to understand this and many in Israel, not least the country's prime minister, refuse to see the reality faced by the hardships of life as an eternal refugee.

The quandary in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is that, to paraphrase former Israeli national security adviser Gen Giora Eiland, the most that Israel is prepared to offer the Palestinians remains less than the minimum acceptable to them, and the minimum that the Israelis can accept is less than the maximum the Palestinians are willing to offer.

Will a solution ever be reached between the two sides? Yes, but only when both sides develop greater love for their children than the hate they harbour for their enemy. And that may be a while.