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来源:经济学家    作者:经济学家   时间:2012-11-20 21:00   点击: 次  

Palestine, Israel and the UN

Nerves are jangling again

Will Israeli and Palestinian leaders let a renewal of violence in Gaza get out of control and make diplomacy even harder to revive?

A SUDDEN frightening surge in violence in Gaza and adjacent bits of Israel, along with the prospect of Israel’s humiliation at the hands of the Palestinians at the UN, is threatening to upset the calm that Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, had hoped to vaunt in the run-up to Israel’s general election on January 22nd. If Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader who runs the West Bank, the main chunk of a would-be Palestinian state, keeps his promise to go ahead and win enhanced observer status at the UN General Assembly on November 29th, Mr Netanyahu’s government may be tempted to take punitive measures that might even lead to Mr Abbas’s downfall. And if the latest bout of violence between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamists of Hamas, gets out of hand, Egypt’s Islamist government could threaten to scrap the peace treaty with Israel. As turmoil rattles the wider region, none of this is likely to benefit anyone but warmongers.


The temperature rose earlier this month when a rocket fired from Gaza, probably by a Palestinian group that is a lot wilder than Hamas, which has generally abided by an informal ceasefire since 2009, hit an Israeli jeep across the border, wounding four soldiers. A retaliatory Israeli air raid killed four Palestinians at a funeral. More Palestinian rockets were fired, some by Hamas itself. Then, on November 14th, Ahmad Jabari, Hamas’s military commander, was killed in an Israeli air strike, prompting a still more vigorous Hamas response. The next day, in an even more dangerous escalation, a rocket killed three Israeli civilians in a town between Gaza and Tel Aviv, Israel’s biggest city.


Though hundreds of rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in the past year, most of them have been inaccurate home-made contraptions; not a single Israeli had previously been killed by one this year (and about a score since 2004), so the latest Israeli fatalities may prompt Mr Netanyahu to retaliate more fiercely still. As The Economist went to press, there were the usual futile worldwide calls for restraint.


So the atmosphere at the UN, in the run-up to the Palestinian vote, is likely to be even steamier. Israeli ministers have been threatening to pull the financial plug on the Palestinian Authority (PA), the body that all sides agreed upon in 1994 to manage Palestinian affairs, if Mr Abbas wins an enhanced status (though not full membership) for Palestine at the UN. But Palestinian leaders say that, if Mr Abbas backs off at the last minute as he did before, the PA will collapse for lack of political progress, albeit of a symbolic kind. He sorely needs a moral and diplomatic victory. “No longer will Palestine be an occupied territory, but an occupied state,” says Muhammad al-Shtayyeh, a confidant of the PA president.


For his part, Mr Netanyahu worries that, if the Palestinian bid succeeds, rivals at home will accuse him of losing his diplomatic touch as well as letting violence in Gaza spiral. Israel has already surrendered its long-standing friendship with Turkey, the sole big Muslim country with which it has amiable relations. Barack Obama, back in the White House, is a lot less warm to him than the losing candidate, Mitt Romney, would have been. With Islamists gaining ground in a hostile neighbourhood and many countries once against chastising Israel over Gaza, Israel may start to feel lonelier again. Mr Netanyahu, who seemed electorally impregnable, may suddenly look vulnerable.


Israel’s finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, has threatened—if the UN bid goes ahead—not just to stop transferring the tax revenues that make up almost half the PA budget but to stop collecting them altogether. Yet Israeli army commanders shudder at the chaos that might ensue if the PA’s 50,000 security people were unable to put food on the table. Indeed, Israel has been so worried by the PA’s budget crisis that in the past three months it has advanced $200m to the PA and issued Palestinians in the West Bank with several thousand more permits to work in Israel. “It’s in Israel’s interest to preserve the PA,” says an officer, examining various contingencies.


Not all Israelis agree. Avigdor Lieberman, who leads a far-right party in the ruling coalition as Mr Netanyahu’s foreign minister, has repeatedly called for the PA to be dissolved. Since Mr Liebermann’s party agreed last month to fight the election in an alliance with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, his voice may carry more weight than before. Other hawkish Israelis, reverting to the old slogan of “Jordan is Palestine”, have hailed influential Jordanians who recently declared that the notion of a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine existing side by side in peace) is dead, and that Jordan should take what is left of the West Bank back under its control.


Mr Abbas needs whatever scraps of political credit he can get. The vitriol that Israelis have heaped on him as he heralds his UN bid has helped shore him up a bit, only days after he was denounced as a traitor by many of his fellow Palestinians for appearing on Israeli television to cede the supposedly sacred right of Palestinian refugees to return to their old homes within the internationally recognised borders of Israel, in his case the Galilee town of Safed.


Mr Abbas also badly needs international support to help him re-establish his authority over the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. Visits to that beleaguered coastal strip by the moneyed emir of Qatar, by Bahraini princes and Egyptian ministers have all bolstered the claim of Gaza—and of Hamas—to be Palestine’s new centre of gravity. Hamas may also be reviving its ambitions in the West Bank. PA and Israeli officials both say it is rebuilding its base there, five years after it was clobbered for taking over Gaza.


That, perhaps, is another reason for Mr Netanyahu to want to cut Hamas down to size over the rockets. But by boosting sympathy for the recalcitrant Islamists, he may also be doing down the most peace-minded of Palestinians, Mr Abbas.



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