It’s hard to keep up. Just as we thought the war in Gaza had ended, the U.N. General Assembly admitted Palestine as a nonmember observer state, a move opposed by both the U.S. and Israel, but supported by about 130 other countries, including France. The war in Syria seemed to be tipping rapidly in favor of the rebels, with the arrival of more powerful weapons, the shooting down of government aircraft and the closure of the Damascus airport, and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi appeared to have overreached himself with his unilateral decree that his decisions are not subject to judicial review by the nation’s constitutional court. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrating Egyptians think otherwise.
These are exciting and challenging times. It’s hard to oppose the Palestinian diplomatic offensive, as it is peaceful compared to the much more hard-line and sometimes violent stance of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, it gives Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a one-up over Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, whose embattled stance against Israel the other week greatly increased the standing of Hamas among Palestinians. In fact, Meshal is now calling for unity talks between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, dominated by the PLO.
But both Israel and the United States fear that U.N. observer status might lead to Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court, giving the Palestinians the right to bring the Israelis to court over their behavior in the occupied West Bank. Conversely, of course, the Israelis could bring the Palestinians to court, though that is unlikely. The Palestinian success at the U.N. puts the U.S. and Israel in an awkward position. Congress could cut off aid to the Palestinians, just as last year, when the U.S. cut off funding to UNESCO because of Palestinian participation. Israel has threatened to cut off tax receipts legally due the Palestinians. Both the U.S. and Israel could back away from such measures because both countries support the Palestinian Authority (the Israelis do so barely) and do not wish to see it weakened. It remains the negotiating partner of choice for the Israelis and the U.S. in any future Middle East peace talks. Moreover, both countries see the Palestinian United Nations move as a step away from the peace talks, which remain the best chance for a Palestinian state. Obviously, the Palestinians think otherwise. And they could be right.
The war in Syria is reaching a decisive turning point, and the U.S. is reported to be considering deeper intervention, including the direct provision of arms to some of the rebel groups. CIA operatives and other U.S. personnel are already on the Turkish border deciding which groups should receive which weapons. No doubt there are covert cross-border operations. Advanced U.S. surface-to-air missiles are on their way to the Turkish border at Turkey’s request, presumably for the defense of Turkey, but the message to the Assad regime in Damascus is clear: beware. Syrian air force jets and helicopters have been shot down, and the Damascus airport has been closed because of nearby fighting. So there is a lot more offensive rebel activity than in the past.
Diplomatic pressure is also increasing. A few weeks ago in Jordan, British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “Look, let’s be frank, what we’ve done over the last 18 months hasn’t been enough. The slaughter continues, the bloodshed is appalling, the bad effects it’s having on the region, the radicalization, but also the humanitarian crisis that is engulfing Syria. So let’s work together on really pushing what we can do.” And Cameron talks often to President Barack Obama. The election is over, and the president has a much freer hand, so we may see a greater U.S. commitment.
In Egypt, the birth of the democratic process took another dramatic turn when President Morsi declared that his decisions are not subject to judicial review. Suddenly, Morsi had the appearance of a new dictator, and the Egyptians were having none of it. The move was seen by many Egyptians as an unacceptable grab for power, and thousands poured into the streets to protest. Morsi backed down somewhat by saying the decree would be limited to “sovereign matters,” such as protecting the assembly now writing Egypt’s constitution from judicial interference. Morsi was afraid that the courts, still dominated by men appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak, would cancel the constitution-writing assembly just as last year they abolished the country’s first democratically elected parliament. But he had gone too far. He called on the army to protect the Muslim Brotherhood offices in Cairo, which had come under attack as a result of Morsi’s decree, but the army declined. Clearly there are limits to Morsi’s authority, which is good to know, even if those limits ultimately lie with the military. Much has changed in Egypt, yet much remains the same. The same is true of the Middle East as a whole.
Bill Stewart, a former Foreign Service officer and correspondent for Time magazine, lives in Santa Fe. He writes weekly on current affairs.