Mideast Power and Confusion

To spend time speaking and listening to a wide range of people in Washington on Middle Eastern issues, as I did last week, is to wander into a world of deep perplexity. Every pillar of America’s Middle East policies is changing rapidly, and much of the change sees Middle Eastern actors taking charge of their own destinies, leaving the United States in a strangely weakened and often marginalized position.

The principal manifestations of this situation are the behaviors of the Palestinians, Saudis, Egyptians, Israelis, Turks and Iranians, and the Russians and Chinese from outside the region. The two most telling issues that reveal American perplexity are the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition and the rolling Arab revolts across the region.

The most dramatic illustration of America’s confusion, contradictions and degraded credibility is its inability to stop the forward motion of the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition.

This has dramatically exposed Washington’s isolation in the Middle East because its strong commitment to Israel apparently overrides any other issue there, including applying the international rule of law on problems like the expansion of Israeli settlements.

The Palestinians not only dismissed strong American objections about the move at the United Nations, they have now followed this up with a request for recognition at Unesco, which has received preliminary approval from the body’s executive board.

The United States has threatened to cut off its funding for Unesco, which accounts for 22 percent of the body’s budget. In the new world we are entering, the Palestinians are acting and Washington is reacting.

This is just one example of how the strongest power in the world also may be the weakest power in the Middle East, despite its armed forces fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The isolation of the American and Israeli delegations at the U.N. reflects a wider reality. Across the region, most people and governments see American policies as being contrary or even hostile to their wellbeing. This will continue to be highlighted by the Palestinian move at the U.N. in the months ahead.

The Palestinian quest for U.N. recognition is now widely debated across the United States, with the common attitude in Washington being total uncertainty about its direction and implications. Even Palestinian officials close to President Mahmoud Abbas are not certain of what happens next because three primary dimensions of the move remain unknown: the Palestinian strategy, its impact on the ground, and American or Israeli retributive reactions.

The U.N. move is intriguing at many levels, most importantly for what it tells us about the determination of even the weak Palestinian leadership to defy the United States and shift the adjudication of the Arab-Israeli conflict out of Washington and into the halls of the United Nations or other bodies — where international legitimacy and law, rather than American Zionism, define the ground rules of diplomatic engagement.

The central lessons to date of the Palestinian U.N. initiative is that power is something you generate by your actions, and credibility as an international political actor comes from harnessing your power and using it efficiently and wisely. The Palestinian leadership seems to have learned the first lesson, and is pursuing the U.N. initiative in a manner that reveals its capacity to shake up a stagnant diplomatic arena.

Ironically, though, as the U.C.L.A. professor Saree Makdisi pointed out in a lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington last week, President Abbas seemed embarrassed to see that he actually had power and autonomy of action that he could use, and seemed hesitant to use the power at his disposal. While Abbas unleashed the enormous international support for the Palestinian cause, Makdisi said, he also seemed unsure of how far he should push for implementation of key U.N. General Assembly resolutions, appearing unsure if he should be assertive or apologetic. Makdisi attributes this in part to his analysis that Abbas was only involved in “political theater” at the United Nations, rather than a serious diplomatic deployment of power, and also was hampered because he made no attempt to secure Palestinian popular legitimacy for his “high stakes poker game at the U.N.”

Regardless of whether the Palestinian leadership is moving ahead according to any coherent strategy, or enjoys any significant legitimacy or support among its own people, it has triggered significant debate in America that has also exposed the enormous confusion and contradictions in Washington’s unsuccessful attempt to be both the guarantor of Israel’s supremacy in the region and a mediator for the birth of a Palestinian state. Unable to live with this situation any longer, the Palestinians have taken the initiative to break the stalemate, and the United States seems unsure how to react.

Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

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