A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

18 Years After Oslo, Is It Time to Reshuffle the Deck?

The iconic moment at left took place 18 years ago yesterday. There were moments in the 1990s, when Yitzhak Rabin was still alive, that a real peace seemed possible. Both sides bear some of the responsibility for its failure, and so does the man in the middle, who pushed Camp David II before he had a real breakthrough in place. For all his posing as a freedom fighter, Arafat was a horribly cautious man. Mahmoud Abbas is nowhere near as charismatic as Arafat, but he does seem more willing to take risks. Arafat knew when to hold 'em and knew when to fold 'em, but wasn't the sort to raise the ante when he wasn't holding a good hand. Is Abbas? It's starting to look like it: or maybe he's holding a better hand than his opponents think.

On October 6, 1973, Anwar Sadat sent Egyptian forces across the Suez Canal. For the first time in an Arab-Israeli war, there was virtually none of the "drive Israel into the sea" sort of rhetoric and a lot of rhetoric about recovering Sinai.  In most military senses the Egyptians ended that war on the losing side: they had a whole Field Army surrounded and cut off from Cairo by an Israeli strike force west of the Canal. But Sadat was able to reopen the Canal and get parts of Sinai back because Henry Kissinger started his shuttle diplomacy. Sadat won a diplomatic, not a conventional military, victory, because he'd had the daring to reshuffle the deck, and also to introduce wild cards (throwing the Russians out: tilting toward the Americans.) (Okay; I'll try hard to refrain from further poker metaphors in the rest of this post.)

An interesting number of people in the blogosphere and media are asking what would be so disastrous if the United States, which claims to want a two-state solution, accepted a United Nations recognition of Palestine. It would be hard, though I'm sure they'd find a way, for Israel to claim that the UN has no right to do that since, well, Israel was created directly through United Nations action. For political reasons and others, the US  will veto any Security Council resolution, but if Palestine wins a big General Assembly vote, the calculus will change.

The US would indeed further isolate itself, as Prince Turki al-Faisal has noted in the NYT, in what seems to be a nearly open Saudi threat to break with the US on this.  Even peace-leaning Israeli commentators are expressing the wish that Israel had sought to constructively engage (and perhaps even forestall) a UN vote, rather than simply throw down the gauntlet of defiance.

I don't really expect the US Administration, beleaguered by economic difficulties and political attacks, to go out on a limb. And I don't expect an Israel under Netanyahu and Lieberman to take daring risks. But neither we nor Israel may be in the driver's seat here. And perhaps we should at least ask ourselves: would s dramatic change in the status quo be a disaster, or perhaps create an opportunity for new thinking.

One last poker image: is it time not just to up the ante, but to kick over the card table and see who's holding what when you pick it up again? It worked for Sadat in 1973.


Robert said...

The Saudis have nowhere to go.

Prince Turki is pulling an Obama.

David Mack said...

Saudis will make good what the Palestinian Authority loses when the US Congress tries to punish the PA for going to the UN. Europeans will rally around PA more quickly than we imagine. Israel will find it even harder to patch up relations with Turks. Pressure will grow on Egypt and Jordan to match Turkey and prevent Iran from undercutting them. US will end up having even less weight in Middle East, unless the Israelis decide they want the US back in and are prepared to deal some new cards. Probably not likely with the current Israeli government, but sober Israeli strategists are right to be worried about long term implications of international loss of legitimacy.