On September 23, 2011 a line will be drawn in the sand. The Palestinian Authority is adamant they will go through with their pledge to bid for a place at the United Nations and the time has come where every nation in the world will be asked to pick a side. The US has already stated its intention to veto a Palestinian vote at the Security Council and Israel has warned of dire consequences if the Palestinian Authority (PA) go through with the UN membership bid.
The pledge has put US in an awkward position, and China and Russia are positioning themselves to benefit. The Arab Spring provided US with unique policy options as its public perception improved in the region, which have been put at risk by the Palestinian bid. This is a decisive event that will determine the trajectory of relations between many states, and the shape of emerging geopolitics in the Middle East and beyond.
Global Power Dynamics
The US has stated that it will veto any Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN Security Council, which places it unequivocally in the Israeli camp. The US also warned both Egypt and Palestinian Authority with suspension of aid.
Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes told the media on Friday, “We’ve been very clear that we don’t believe that unilateral actions through the United Nations will lead to a Palestinian state, that the way to achieve a Palestinian state is through negotiations between the parties,” adding, “That’s the only way you’re going to be able to deal with issues of borders and security, and the future of Jerusalem.”
President Obama has reiterated that he is “deeply committed” to Israeli security. The UN veto pledge is also a security pledge, given that the Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said in August that the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations was “a more serious threat to Israel than that posed by Hamas.”
US relations with most countries that vote for the establishment of a Palestinian state will not be much affected, save for a few countries that are teetering on the edge of Washington’s displeasure. These countries include Turkey and Egypt whose relations with Israel and the US are likely to suffer after the UN vote on September 23.
Interestingly, China has announced its support for Palestine’s United Nations Statehood bid in September. The announcement came during a meeting in late August between Chinese special envoy to the Middle East, Wu Sike and Palestinian leaders in Ramallah. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wu assured the Palestinian people of Beijing’s support for the Palestinian bid.
Chinese special envoy to the Middle East Wu Sike also met earlier with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammad Amr in Cairo. In the meeting Sike voiced China’s desire to develop a cooperative relationship and to further ties between the countries after the removal of Hosni Mubarak from power. China attaches great importance to Egypt’s role in the Middle East and is happy to see historic changes in Egypt, Wu said. The Palestine issue was also discussed with Wu stating that China supported the rights of full sovereignty for Palestinian people and considered the process integral to regional and world stability.
Chinese obviously are placing themselves for a greater influence in the Middle East and this would be a cause of concern for US. However, Chinese have also attempted to allay those fears by the recent high-level visits between Israeli and Chinese leadership.
In an indication of strengthening Israeli-Sino relations, Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army General Chen Bingde visited Israel in early August. The visit took place at the invitation of IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz. Bingde’s trip occurred after Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited Beijing in June, the first trip of an Israeli defense minister to China in 10 years. According to defense officials, Bingde’s trip does not signify changes in Israel’s defense policy with respect to China. In recent years, Israel considerably downgraded its defense relations with Beijing under US pressure, and Israeli firms are forbidden from selling arms to China.
On the other hand, Russia is also positioning itself as the friend of the Arabs, especially as US relations with the Islamic world continues to deteriorate. Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin recently stated that his country would support UN recognition of the Palestinians if they decide to go that route.
”But I must say that we are not pushing them into it,” he said. ”We are saying that, ‘Whatever you decide to do, we will support you’.”
Both Russia and China have both played a very reserved role in Libya as compared to France and England, and have questioned NATO on overextending the mandate given to it by the Security Council. Russia is also playing a similar role regarding Syria and has resisted the imposition of harder measures against the country.
The positions of France, Germany and UK are less clear. However, if the Libyan crisis provides any precedence, France and UK are likely to support the US position, as the EU remains divided. Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had stated on September 9th: “I am not going to disclose today our voting intentions, whatever they may be.
How countries vote at the UN, despite the foregone conclusion that the motion will be vetoed, will directly impact on Israel’s foreign relations. Turkey is one of the countries that will likely see a rapid deterioration in relations with Israel.
Turkey and Israel have been navigating rough waters since the Freedom Flotilla incident, and despite Turkey trying to steer a NATO-friendly course at the beginning of the year, the consequences of worsening Israeli relations will likely push again towards a Middle East centric agenda.
In line with the deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations, Israel has initiated a defense pact with Greece, a long-standing Turkish rival. There have also been suggestions of Israeli support for Kurdish militants in the north or Iraq, which is a blow aimed at Ankara more than Iraq.
PoliTact’s projection that the issue of Kurdistan will become more heated is verified by these Israelis moves, which are designed to remind Turkey that there are issues Israel can become involved in within Turkey’s neighborhood, just as Turkey has involved itself in Israel’s neighborhood.
The escalation of tension between the two countries comes just days after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan threatened to deploy warships in the Mediterranean: “Israel cannot do whatever it wants in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said. “They will see what our decision will be on this subject. Our navy attack ships can be there at any moment.”
Egypt is another candidate for a rapid deterioration of already-shaky Israeli relations. The cross border issues that have arisen since the removal of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may well turn hostile in a post-UN vote scenario. Egypt has already sent a not-so-subtle message to Israel by publically dismissing the importance of the Camp David Accord.
After riots at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf stated that “The Camp David agreement is not a sacred thing,” and that “we could make changes if needed.” The timing of these comments by Sharaf, who was speaking to Turkish media at the time, has been greatly inflammatory, particularly as the issue of the embassy riot is still more or less unresolved.
Given the aggressive undertones between Egypt, Turkey and Israel, the reprisals that Israel has promised the Palestinians should they make a bid for statehood at the UN may be the final straw that reopens the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Traditional and social media scenes of Israeli violence against Palestinians will be forthcoming if the Israelis launch an offensive against Palestine, and it will be difficult for neighboring counties to remain inactive, especially given that the Palestinian cause is such a popular issue, and governments are keener than ever to play to the population given the events of the Arab Spring.
The Iranian, Turkish and Saudi Tussles
Syria, despite its troubled domestic situation may be drawn into any conflict that arises in a post-UN vote scenario, and may even use the issue to create a unified purpose in the population and try and mend the deep rifts that have surfaced during the Syrian uprising. Iran will almost certainly be ready for action on Israel, as it will be an opportunity to confront a long-standing foe, and to also increase its influence in Syria, Egypt and Lebanon.
Iran and Turkey may come into conflict in this regard, as both are playing to position themselves as the champion of the Palestinian cause, and to hold greater sway in the affairs of the Arab world. The Saudi’s will do their best to uphold their predominance in the region, and are aligning themselves to take a prominent role in the aftermath of the UN vote. The Saudi’s have already made it clear to the US that despite the political cost, they are prepared to “part ways” with the US on a number of crucial policies issues if it vetoes the Palestinian vote.
The Israeli Reaction
A lot of the possible scenarios that can be envisioned depend on the severity of Israel’s promised response. We know that the Palestinian Authority has vowed to apply for membership at the UN and for statehood to be acknowledged. We know the bid will be unsuccessful because the US has promised to veto it. We know that Israel will punish the Palestinians even though the bid is unsuccessful, maybe more so because the bid is unsuccessful. What we don’t know, and what will determine how far this will escalate is the extent to which Israel enacts its retribution against the Palestinian people.
Firstly, Israel has threatened unspecified action against Palestine if it goes ahead with the UN bid. In the lead up to September 23rd, Israel has upped training for over 100 “settler security teams” comprised of civilian militia that carry Israeli military issue M-16 rifles, in anticipation of unrest at settlement sites. The Yesha Council’s Shlomo Vaknin has that the Israeli army has drawn boundaries around settlements, and has been conducting simulations of what would happen if Palestinian protestors crossed the boundaries.
Onlookers in Israel and abroad are speculating that sanctions, cutting provisions of basic utilities, military action in Gaza, voidance of all Israel-PA agreements and even voidance of the Oslo Accords are on the table if the PA go ahead with the statehood bid. The up-shot of this is that if the Palestinians go to the UN, the most likely scenario is that all the years of work towards reconciliation will be wiped away and the Israel-Palestine conflict will be as a fresh wound.
For Israel, this is a conundrum. On the one hand, they want to be severe with the Palestinians so that another unilateral bid for statehood is not pursued. However they would be well aware that the whole world will be watching them and that there are countries positioned all around that will be drawn to action if they go too far.
Historically, however, Israel has not been shy to act harshly despite the condemnation of the international community. For Israel the choice may well come down to whether it is prepared to face-off against its neighbors in a new era of violence in the Arab-Israel conflict.