Shift in US policy hurts Palestinians

Shift in US policy hurts Palestinians

The announcement by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that he does not wish to stand in next January’s presidential election has put an end to Washington’s faltering attempt at peace-making between Palestinians and Israelis.

Abbas’ decision came on the heels of what Palestinians saw as a shift in US policy announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last weekend. She employed the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe a pledge by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to ‘restrain’ growth in Israeli colonies in the West Bank by completing only 3,000 housing units over the next 9-12 months. However, the annual average for such units is 1,400, according to Israel’s own Peace Now.

Therefore, Netanyahu is promising to more than double the rate of construction to accommodate colonists who now number half a million among 2.8 million Palestinians. Since the 1993 Oslo peace process, the number of settlers in the West Bank alone grew from 1,09,000 to 3,00,000.

Clinton’s endorsement of Netanyahu’s position amounted to reversal of her May demand for a “stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.”

Careful move

Although Abbas previously negotiated while colonisation continued, Palestinian Authority media chief, Ghassan Khatib said, “Palestinians are trying to avoid repeating this mistake.. conducting negotiations while settlement expansion is taking place amounts to indirect encouragement and a legitimisation of illegal settlement activity.”

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that beleaguered Abbas should dismiss as ‘illogical’ Clinton’s call for an unconditional resumption of negotiations. He reiterated his demand for a total construction freeze as a pre-condition for talks. Clinton put Abbas in an intolerable situation. When he was elected in 2005 to succeed Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, Abbas was seen by Israel, the US and the international community as the best possible interlocutor.

Unlike Arafat, who proffered an olive branch in one hand and a gun in the other, Abbas had renounced violence in favour of negotiations. However, succeeding Israeli governments have refused to make a deal he can accept while continuing to construct colonies on Palestinian land, shrinking the area which Palestinians claim for their state.

Abbas has been weakened by corruption in the Palestinian Authority, the split between his Fateh faction and Hamas.

Abbas’ weakness poses two dangers. First, any violent incident between Palestinians and Israelis could spark a third Intifada, a fresh uprising. Second, a political vacuum in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will be exploited both by Fateh opportunists and Hamas.

A power struggle would fragment the already divided Palestinians. Clinton’s false claim outraged Arab leaders and citizens alike. Particularly angry are pro-western rulers who took seriously President Barack Obama’s overtures to the Muslim world. His effort to court the Muslim world was torpedoed last by one word: ‘unprecedented.’ Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak warned of the “catastrophic consequences for the region’s stability and security” of the deadlock in the peace process.

Strain in relations

US-Arab relations are likely to deteriorate. Pressure is rising on pro-US Arab leaders to disengage from the US while ties between Israel and Washington are tense. The Arabs are likely to dismiss US efforts to isolate and punish Iran for refusing to freeze its nuclear programme. Tehran is certain to capitalise on Arab popular disillusionment with Obama. In the absence of a nuclear deal with Tehran, Israel could attack Iran with horrendous consequences for US-Muslim relations.

The world-wide Muslim community initially embraced Obama and praised his call for change in US policy on Palestine, the origin and core of the Muslim dispute with the West. Unless, Obama wrings a settlement freeze out of Israel and launches serious negotiations, he will be regarded by Muslims with the same hatred and contempt as is George W Bush. Perhaps more because Obama promised ‘change’ but is following Bush’s policies in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stasis is a boon to Muslim militants bent on hitting at US interests and allies. India, a favourite victim of Pakistan-based militants, could suffer further outrages by militants striking at the most convenient target. The Pakistani Taliban, which is bombing Pakistani cities at present, could even export operations across the Indo-Pak border.

One US commentator observed that the administration does not know what it is doing.  It has ‘no strong, capable person’ in charge. “It all seems unprofessional, a policy drifting in different directions... projecting weakness... This is very dangerous and full of implications for Iran and Af-Pak policy.”

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