The Middle East Channel

Israel should endorse UN recognition of a Palestinian state

The Palestinian leadership seems to have given up on negotiations with the Netanyahu government and is obviously moving towards seeking recognition for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, possibly in September this year. Most pundits believe that they will muster a substantial majority in the UN General Assembly.

Israel's foreign ministry has now informed the members of the Security Council as well as a number of European countries that it will react to this Palestinian move with a series of unilateral steps. There are indications that these might include the annexation of some major settlement blocs in the West Bank.

What on earth is this move supposed to achieve? Is it intended to frighten the Palestinians, the UN, or the EU? Does the foreign minister expect the international community to meekly accept Israel's annexation and immediately to stop the process of recognizing the Palestinian state?

This is a dangerous misreading of the international climate. Since the breakup of former Yugoslavia, international institutions have consistently supported demands for independence, from Kosovo to East Timor. As Aluf Benn has pointed out in a recent analytical piece, the world is likely to support many other national movements: it will probably accept the Kurdish demand for independence at some point, and it has, of course, made clear for decades that it accepts the Palestinian demand for a viable state within the 1967 borders.

Israel's situation becomes particularly sensitive on the background of recent developments in the Arab world. After some brief hesitations, the international community has decided to take a clear pro-democracy stance, first vis-à-vis Tunisia, then Egypt. In the case of Libya it has decided on the use of force to protect its population from Qaddafi's brutality.

Of course Israel is different in many respects: despite its shortcomings, it is a somewhat chaotic, but functioning representative democracy; and while international opinion has condemned the extent of destruction and killing Israel inflicted on Gaza in operation Cast Lead, the free world recognizes Israel's right to self-defense and does not suggest military intervention against Israel.

But Israel's occupation of the West Bank - and the continued construction of settlements and the expropriation of Palestinian buildings in Jerusalem - is widely seen as a human rights violation. This arrangement is not sustainable and pressure from public opinion worldwide is likely to rise: the Arab world will insist on parity of the free world's approach to Israel and Arabs, and many Europeans are bound to agree. The argument might be put forward that the free world cannot adhere to double standards. If Arab regimes are pressured into conforming to international law and respect for human rights, the same must be done with Israel. 

Public opinion in Europe towards Israel is becoming ever more negative, and the young generation in the U.S. is seeing Israel ever more negatively. While most EU governments would probably prefer not to impose sanctions on Israel, they may come to the point where public opinion would leave them no choice. Unilateral steps by Israel like annexation of West Bank territory might tip the balance to the point at which they will feel that such sanctions are becoming inevitable.

Obviously it is in Israel's vital interest to avoid a situation in which the world, primarily the EU, Israel's largest trading partner, would impose sanctions or even a boycott on Israel.

What, then, can Israel do to avoid this scenario?

Here is a radical, yet simple, proposal that requires some thinking out of the box: UN recognition of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders actually should appease Israel's deepest existential fears. Netanyahu has been warning constantly that the world does not accept Israel's legitimacy. He seems not to notice that recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders would put an end to the doubts of many Israelis that the world does not want Israel to exist.

A Palestinian state along the 1967 boundaries means that Israel, for the first time in its history, would have internationally recognized borders. It would be clear that the Palestinians have no more legitimate demands on Israeli territory west of today's Green Line. This would silence the radical voices in the free world that do not accept Israel's existence.

The mainstream of the international community would now have a very clear case against any group like Hamas that doesn't accept Israel's right to exist. Israel could then count on a unified international front against Iran, Hezbollah, and other radical Islamist movements, and would no longer have to rely on unpalatable Islamophobic right-wing groups for support.

An Israeli government capable of thinking out of the box would welcome and sponsor UN recognition of the Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. Instead of trying to prevent this outcome, Israel would cooperate with the Palestinians and the UN to include the following provisos: one-on-one land-swaps need to be determined by negotiations between the two parties; implementation of the agreement needs to be gradual, taking into account Israel's security concerns. From the Al Jazeera leaks - the Palestine Papers - we know that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is quite close to accepting these positions. Hence such a plan is quite realistic.

Israelis could finally breathe more freely: they would know that the country is no longer under diplomatic barrage, that neither sanctions nor boycott need to be expected, and that the international community would fully support Israel's right to self-defense if it were attacked from the State of Palestine.

Such a step could be expected by many observers who marvel at the daring of Israeli business entrepreneurs and the creativity of its scientists and artists. Quite unfortunately there is a huge gap between the mindsets of Israel's entrepreneurial and cultural elite and its political leadership. The foreign ministry's current threat to implement unilateral steps to counteract Palestinian UN recognition indicates that Israel's current leadership is very far from thinking out of the box; instead it is locked into a bunker with no connection to the outside world.

Carlo Strenger is a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University and serves on the Terrorism Panel of the World Federation of Scientists. He is the author of numerous books, most recently The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century. He blogs at Strenger than Fiction on Haaretz.com.

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The Middle East Channel

Jordan's stubborn regime hangs in the balance

The Hashemite regime of Jordan is running out of time. Last Friday, a 2,000-strong opposition gathering in Amman dissolved into a spectacle of violence, leaving one dead and over a hundred injured. Although described by the Western media as the country's first repressive crackdown during this winter of discontent, the reality is more complex -- and more unsettling. Opposition activists infused by a new youth movement assembled near the Interior Ministry to vocalize a familiar chorus of democratic demands. Hundreds of armed government loyalists counter-rallied, cursing their fellow citizens and bombarding them with rocks. The street police were complicit in the breakdown of order until special darak riot forces began assaulting activists outright, allegedly using tear gas and then water cannons. Alongside many loyalists, they cheered and marched after "liberating" the circle from the reformist encampment.

This day of violence encapsulated all that has gone wrong since popular protests began three months ago: reform demands falling on deaf ears, apathy by agents of the state, brutality by government proxies. Above all, it exposed the bankruptcy of this authoritarian regime's strategy of coping with the current opposition upsurge by furnishing vague promises of gradual reform while quietly manipulating social divisions from within. It failed in the first but is beginning to succeed in the second, creating a dangerous political climate that could result in further violence. The crisis will end when King Abdullah provides a credible commitment to reform -- one that goes beyond hollow invitations to dialogue and instead furnishes a concrete timetable for change. Yet to do that would require the palace to reverse its stubborn stance, something that might well demand U.S. involvement.

How did Jordan come to this? While Tunisia and Egypt roiled in rage, Western observers insisted that the kingdom would right itself, for citizens here venerated the Hashemite crown and preferred moderate change. But the persistence of public protests has problematized such narratives. Starting in mid-January, weekly demonstrations drew thousands of frustrated Jordanians onto the streets over the rising cost of living, November's toothless parliamentary elections, and political corruption. The protesters represent not only the Muslim Brotherhood, professional associations, and leftist parties -- long-standing groups in which the Palestinian majority is well represented -- but also East Bank tribesmen, military retirees, and civil pensioners, more conservative forces that the palace never predicted it would need to pacify. The youth movement that spearheaded last Friday's assembly, the March 24 Shabab, also reveals profound dissatisfaction within the kingdom's largest demographic: More than two-thirds of the population is under 30. 

However, the regime has repeatedly squandered opportunities to defuse such burgeoning criticism. In February, King Abdullah dismissed his unpopular cabinet and charged new Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit with formulating democratic reforms. Yet many activists saw the return of Bakhit, a consummate military hand and Hashemite retainer, as an insult, recalling the security restrictions that typified his first premiership in the mid-2000s. Equivocal pledges to review the Elections Law, extirpate corruption, and pursue other changes lacked any benchmark for resolution. In mid-March, the king anointed a 52-member National Dialogue Committee to explore options for restructuring government, but the consultative group excluded representation from youth activists and received no guarantee that its recommendations would be ratified. Sensing a repeat of the ill-fated 2005 National Agenda, 22 members have resigned.

The king and his men have hence miscalculated how to deal with a wave of public dissent that lacks any ideological foundation and instead revolves around a shared understanding that the current autocratic political system is neither transparent nor fair. Months of resistance from above combined with Friday's infighting has catalyzed deepening frustration from various constituencies. Some tribes petitioned the palace to resolve its crisis of governance and make good on its reform vows, pointedly reminding the king that they are abnaa al-watan -- sons of the homeland. Other tribes have embraced the cause of March 24 Shabab, noting that they contributed many of its young activists. Hundreds of political elites, including the king's uncle, Prince Hassan, and former Prime Minister Ahmad Obeidat, demanded that the government take responsibility for the violence. Student activists now insist that the mukhabarat, the ever-present General Intelligence Directorate, halt its inference in civil society. And Islamists and secular activists alike are openly discussing the merits of constitutional monarchy by first removing the king's prerogative of appointing prime ministers -- a radical idea unthinkable just years ago.

That the regime has missed the reform boat is bad enough. However, the current crisis also stems from its equally precarious tactic of exploiting social tensions in hopes of fragmenting popular pressure. Government officials have excavated long-standing fears with their East Bank and tribal allies that rapid political change would allow the Palestinian majority to dominate Jordan's national identity. Similarly, Bakhit incredibly blamed the Islamists for recent disturbances, suggesting that they had been taking orders from Syria. 

Further, just days after lifting security restrictions against public gatherings in mid-February, a move presented as a concession, officials idly watched as pro-government protests began shadowing opposition marches. Over the past month, the rapid countermobilization of loyalist demonstrations across the country has not only made public spaces more contentious -- it has destroyed the middle ground. Reformists are portrayed as traitors to Jordan, enemies of the king, and Palestinian to boot -- extreme rhetoric that precipitated Friday's clashes and shows no signs of abating.

In addition, the progressively uncertain domestic security environment reflects official complicity, if not outright manipulation. Activists began complaining about the lack of police protection from knife-wielding, pro-government demonstrators more than a month ago, while the darak riot forces secured their atrocious reputation after Friday. Although Bakhit blamed such acts as failures of errant officers, Obeidat (himself a former GID chief) has countered that given the reach of the mukhabarat, police collaboration with loyalist attacks could not have occurred without government knowledge

This is state repression by other means, which journalists know all too well. Threatening phone calls, complaints that foreign reporters fabricate stories, critical news websites mysteriously hacked -- these are recent signs that the regime fears that journalists will stop practicing the self-censorship that has long restrained public debate. It has good reason to worry: When over 200 reporters protested for broader press freedoms in early March, leading the charge were staffers from al-Rai newspaper, the state-owned daily.

The Jordanian regime now faces a crucial juncture. Bloggers and journalists warn of the possibility of civil conflict unless the palace shifts course and negotiates with, rather than patronizes, its critics. However, King Abdullah has only offered another open-ended promise for considering reforms through the National Dialogue Committee, whose remaining members are bitterly arguing whether to take the king's word seriously anymore. Bakhit seems to be in little danger of losing his job, and parliament has predictably rejected any initiative to review, much less curtail, the crown's constitutional supremacy. At the same time, pro-government loyalists will assuredly attack opposition groups again, who now have little incentive to moderate their position and put faith in dialogue. The March 24 Shabab have already promised to return to the streets this Friday, heightening social tensions. If they are assaulted once again, tragedy could ensue.

Here, Barack Obama's administration can play a vital role in nudging Abdullah toward a constructive solution, one that begins with demobilizing the more rapacious pro-government thugs and ends with a shared reform timetable that includes major opposition forces and explicitly lays out which, how, and when major political changes will occur. Such credible compromises could convince opposition activists to take dialogue seriously and thereafter achieve immediate progress on issues with broad appeal, such as reconfiguring the Elections Law and reducing state corruption, before tackling thornier issues like the constitutional scope of parliamentary authority. 

Washington has both the leverage and interests to make that push. Jordan remains one of the most voracious consumers of American economic and military aid in the world. Key policy principals have visited Amman several times in the past two months; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates's brief visit last week coincidentally overlapped with Friday's violence. Moreover, given that few policymakers would enjoy watching revolutionary paralysis unfold on Israel's strategic East flank, there is universal consensus that the Hashemite Kingdom must remain stable. The next step is realizing that such stability will now only come with meaningful democratic reforms.

Sean L. Yom is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.

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