Unresolved Palestinian issue remains a major source of Mideast tension
The eruption of renewed violence between mainly peaceful Palestinian demonstrators and the Israeli military and police culminating during the simultaneous celebrations of Easter, Passover, and Ramadan in and around East Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque has once again reminded the world that the decades-old conflict has not gone away. The Israeli bombing of Gaza in response to rocket fire from the embargoed enclave only highlighted the conflict’s persistent relevance.
The recent clashes, in which many more Palestinians than Israelis were killed or injured, triggered mildly angry responses from some Arab and Palestinian leaders, including King Abdullah of Jordan and Mahmoud Abbas, the aging president of the Palestinian Authority. Abdullah asked Israel to stop what he called “all illegal and provocative actions,” while the Arab League and even Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates condemned Israel’s raid on the mosque, as did Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan despite his recent efforts to improve relations with Israel. Other observers warned of another Palestinian intifada.
The latest events in Palestine expose the fragility of recent gains in normalizing Arab-Israeli relations. If the current tensions devolve into greater violence, then those Arab states that have normalized relations with Israel could feel pressure to reverse course, while those that are already quietly cooperating with Israel, notably Saudi Arabia, may reconsider.
Moreover, another intifada or major outbreak of ethnic violence most likely would strengthen extremist Palestinian groups that identify with the so-called “Axis of Resistance.” The axis includes Hezbollah, some Iraqi Shia militias, and Yemen’s Ansar Ullah, plus Iran and Syria. This configuration of forces means that a potential conflict in Palestine might bring in other actors, spreading the flames into the wider region.
Why the Palestine issue remains important
After the 1979 Egypt-Israel Camp David Accords, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel. More recently, partly as a result of Washington’s mediation, Israel and a number of Arab states, notably, the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco established formal diplomatic relations in what are called the Abraham Accords. These successes have led to a general perception that the Palestine issue is no longer important in Middle East politics. Instead, other issues, such as Iran-Israel hostility, the war in Yemen, and, more generally, Iran’s regional activities and relations with its Arab neighbors, have replaced the Palestine question as the primary source of regional instability.
Doubtless, these quarrels have added fresh tensions in the Middle East. But what has been generally overlooked is that they all share a Palestinian dimension. Although Iran’s Islamist leaders have many complaints about Israeli activities in Iran during the monarchy, such as training the Shah’s brutal secret police, the main reason for their hostility is their belief that Israel has usurped Palestinian and Muslim lands and trampled their rights. Many other Arabs and Muslims share this view, even if their governments no longer protest the Jewish state’s behavior as loudly as they once did. One poll taken in 13 countries in October 2020, for example, found that nearly 90 percent of Arabs oppose normalization with Israel. The existence of such sentiment enables Iran to gain a degree of influence across the region by championing the Palestinian cause.
Other states have also used the Palestinian problem to gain regional influence. For decades, Arab governments used it to advance their particular interests. Even Turkey under Erdoğan has used the Palestinian question to gain influence in the Arab world. He came out in strong support of the Palestinians during Israel’s Cast Lead operation against Gaza in 2008. Two years later, ties between Tel Aviv and Ankara plunged dramatically after the killing by Israeli forces of nine Turkish citizens who were shipping humanitarian aid to Gaza aboard the ship Mavi Marmara.
Palestine as a Muslim issue
The involvement of non-Arab Muslim states in the Palestine question, especially Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, indicates that this is not merely an Arab concern; rather, it interests all Muslims. Even when some Arab regimes lose interest in Palestine, other states, including Arab ones, tend to take up the cause. Until the mid-1970s, Egypt was the leading champion of Palestinian rights. Later, Iraq and Syria assumed the role. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Iran has become Palestine’s principal and uncompromising advocate. If, over time, Tehran changes its position, some other state would likely take up the cause, even if for self-interested reasons.
The Palestine issue and foreign power engagement in the Middle East
The Palestine issue, and the Arab-Israeli dispute over it, has also been a major, albeit not the only cause for great-power engagement, especially for the United States in the Middle East since the 1950s. Traditionally, the West has supported Israel, while, until the Soviet Union’s demise, Moscow backed the Palestinians.
Positions on the Israel/Palestine dispute also partly determined Arab states’ postures vis-à-vis the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Those Arab states with a hawkish approach to the issue tended to side with the Soviet Union. Today, Syria’s close relations with Russia are partly the legacy of that era, although the West’s adoption of a “regime change” policy toward Damascus since 2003 has kept it close to Moscow.
Many aspects of the West’s Middle East policies, including attitudes towards authoritarian governments and human rights issues, have been influenced by the Palestine factor. Western governments have generally been willing to ignore or downplay transgressions by those regimes willing to compromise Palestinian aspirations for their own state on territory occupied by Israel.
For example, Egypt’s continuing adherence to the Camp David Accords, despite serious human rights abuses committed since the 2013 ouster of its democratically elected government, has muted Western denunciations. Meanwhile, the Abraham Accords have had a similar effect on U.S. criticism of Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan, and Morocco, whose occupation and annexation of the Western Sahara, widely considered a violation of the Geneva Convention, is now officially recognized by Washington. Saudi Arabia, which has been engaged in recent years in a covert courtship of Israel, primarily on security issues, is also treated less harshly, although it has not yet signed the Abraham Accords.
The main bone of contention between Iran and the United States also relates to Tehran’s position on Israel and the Palestine issue. Iran, which refuses to recognize Israel, maintains that Palestine’s fate should be decided by a referendum of Palestinians, although it remains vague on whether Palestinian refugees outside the Occupied Territories should be able to participate. In 2006, then-President Mohammad Khatami even said that Iran can accept the two state solution. Other problems, including Iran’s nuclear program, partly derive from disagreements on this basic issue.
In sum, the dispute over Palestine and Palestinian rights remains a major source of tension and instability in the Middle East and a potential trigger for a region-wide war in which a number of parties would seek America’s military intervention. Washington’s continued complacency about the stalemate in Israel-Palestinian relations is dangerous. Even if Israel succeeds in establishing relations with more Arab and Muslim states, its security and that of the region will remain fragile unless it reaches a more acceptable modus vivendi with its Palestinian neighbors.