US walks diplomatic tightrope in Arab-Israeli conflict

The United States treads a narrow tightrope in Middle East diplomacy. Over a hundred insurgents are killed in a bloody clash in Chad. South Korean and Chinese Presidents discuss the sinking of the Cheonan. Five rebels are killed in the Philippines ahead of national elections. All this and more, in today’s security update…

Oliver Scanlan
30 April 2010

Indications emerged on Friday of how the Obama administration is attempting to surmount the diplomatic stalemate in the middle east. Speaking to the American Jewish Committee on Friday, the secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, was robust in her condemnation of the threat posed by Syria and Iran to Israel’s security. Characterising the US commitment to its long standing ally as ‘unshakeable’, Clinton stated that threats to Israel’s security were real and ‘had to be addressed’. Singling out Iran’s nuclear programme and the transfer of sophisticated weaponry to Hizbollah and Hamas ‘terrorists’, Clinton said that Israel was ‘confronting some of the toughest challenges in her history.’

On the same day, The Guardian, a British newspaper, published revelations of private assurances given to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by the US that additional pressure would be brought to bear on Israel regarding its settlements in the occupied territories. This pressure would include the unusual move of abstaining in UN Security Council resolutions critical of Israel. In addition, David Hale, deputy to US special envoy George Mitchell, is reported to have told Abbas that President Obama had received a pledge from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that construction of the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem would cease, at least temporarily. Announcement of the settlement’s construction was the cause for the breakdown of proximity talks last month.

The openSecurity verdict: Today’s announcements represent a welcome sign that the US remains engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and may be willing to exert more diplomatic pressure than it has in the past to achieve a breakthrough. This is even more welcome in light of President Obama’s dejected admission two weeks ago that the US may simply lack the influence to broker a lasting peace. The approach seems, in sum, to be to decouple foreign threats to Israel, promising clear security guarantees, from the issue of Palestinian statehood, where the US is prepared to be more muscular in its approach. 

Clinton’s speech was unambiguous, saying that Syria would face clear consequences if it continued to destabilise the region. Her warning to Iran was more vituperative, saying that Tehran had ‘met our outstretched hand with a clenched fist’ and that it faced ‘increased isolation and painful consequences’. Such clear backing comprises a very important carrot. At the same time, reports that the US would refrain from defending Israel from Security Council resolutions constitute a large stick poised above Netanyahu’s head.

There are two problems with this superficially promising twin track approach. The first is that the ‘external’ security threat and the domestic Israel Palestine dispute are inextricably linked in Hamas, the democratically elected Islamist political party that simultaneously wages an armed war of resistance, with recourse to terrorism, against the Israeli occupation. Many analysts have argued there is no way to resolve the issue of Palestinian statehood without bringing Hamas into the process. Until now the US has demurred, characterising Hamas, as Clinton did today, as a terrorist organisation. There is no sign that the US is about to show flexibility on this key issue.

Secondly, the domestic Israel political scene may simply not permit any compromise on the statehood issue. On Thursday, Netanyahu was forced to defend his leadership of Likud against an extreme-right challenger from within the party. Ostensibly, he won an amendment to postpone a party election by twenty months comfortably, with 76 percent of central committee members voting in favour. But the fact that the far right challenger Moshe Feiglin criticised the ‘concession’ of agreeing to temporarily freeze settlement construction in East Jerusalem as ‘caving in’ to the Americans is truly alarming. Logic suggests that when political challenges are coming from the right, then to the right is where Netanyahu will be compelled to move. With that move will come an end to any chance of a negotiated peace while the current regime in Jerusalem endures.

105 insurgents dead in Chad violence

On Friday, the government of Chad announced that military forces had killed 105 Popular Front for National Resistance (FPNR) fighters in a bloody clash near the Sudanese border. FPNR leader Adoum Yacoub disputed the claim, saying that both sides had sustained casualties in the battle, but not disclosing further details. The violence, which resulted from an FPNR attack, may mark renewed tensions between Chad and Sudan; in February the two countries agreed not to back rebel groups operating within each other’s borders. This is the first bout of violence since the agreement was reached.

The FPNR is a young group, its membership having splintered from the Union of Forces for the Resistance (UFP) because of the latter’s willingness to negotiate with the government. Thus analysts doubt the FPNR would be able to mount a frontal assault on Chad government forces without Sudanese backing. Both countries have traded accusations of destabilising interference and support of rival groups, with Sudan regularly accusing Chad of backing Darfur rebels. The incident puts at risk the gains made in talks between the two nations and a mutual pledge to end backing rebels in February.

South Korean and Chinese Presidents meet as North Korea readies missile test

On Friday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Shanghai on the fringe of the city’s World Expo. The two heads of state discussed security concerns in the aftermath of the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan in disputed waters off the North Korean coast. Although Hu offered his condolences to the families of the 46 sailors who died in the sinking, analysts have drawn the conclusion that China, North Korea’s key ally in the region, will not be willing to apply diplomatic pressure on their client.

Fragments of aluminium not part of the ship have been discovered in its shattered hull; experts have stated that this is consistent with a torpedo attack. Lee has confirmed that there will be no armed retaliation for the sinking if it is confirmed that North Korea was responsible, calming market fears. At the same time, Lee has been seeking diplomatic support in the region for political and economic ways to punish Pyongyang.

On the same day, North Korea ordered the deportation of South Korean workers from a joint-tourism venture meant to build confidence between the two states. The Mount Kumgang resort provided a much needed stream of income in the desperately poor communist state until it closed two years ago following the shooting of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier. According to the South Korean unification ministry, all but sixteen of the 100 South Korean staff will be deported by 3 May.

Five rebels killed in clash with Philippines army

On Friday, a Philippine marine commander announced that government forces had killed five members of the Abu Sayyaf rebel movement on the southern island of Basilan. One Philippine soldier is also reported dead. The clash, days before national elections, resulted from a Philippine military forces raid on an Abu Sayyaf bomb factory. The commander, brigadier general Eugene Clemen, said that the army had seized explosives, instruction manuals, switches, detonating cords and other bomb-making equipment. The Abu Sayyaf group, which has links to al-Qaeda, has attempted to disrupt elections before on the Philippines’ volatile southern islands.

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