OWL’S HEAD, Maine — Well, that's it. That's the final blow.
Don't worry: I'm not talking about the fiscal cliff. No, what I'm talking about is much worse, long-term — the death knell to the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians.
Ever since President Obama leaped into the Middle East with his eloquent, naive Cairo speech in the spring of 2009, and then misread the adulation from the Arab World as an unstoppable train bearing down on Israel's expansionist settlement policies in the West Bank, only to be stopped dead in his tracks, derailed actually, by Prime Minister Netanyahu — ever since then, analysts have been proclaiming the two-state solution on thin ice, on life support, near death.
And now, the ice just broke, the plugs were pulled, the two-state solution is dead. Who to blame? Who cares. A year ago, the Palestinian Authority proposed seeking an expanded form of recognition at the UN. Obama persuaded them to slow down; they did, expecting a boost from Washington, perhaps an extended Israeli settlement freeze, a resumption of the peace talks on the basis of the 1967 borders, a crust of stale bread, whatever.
Well, it was election year, that virtually permanent state of affairs, at least when it comes to putting pressure on Israel or doing other things that might benefit the US — and Israel as well — long-term, but lose a vote or two in the meantime. So the year passed by, wasted, and once again, the Palestinian Authority was seeking greater UN recognition, and this year they weren't to be put off with vague promises.
And while it was no longer election year, it's always election year, for the president or for Congress when it comes to putting pressure on Israel. So the US vetoed the measure, allying itself with Israel, and Canada, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau, and watching as no nation in Europe, with the exception of the Czech Republic (why? I have no idea) voted with Israel.
Israel's Netanyahu was apparently caught off-guard by the surprising European support for Palestine. And anyway, it's an election year there, so Netanyahu upped the ante and announced he would build 3000 new housing units in the West Bank just east of Jerusalem in an area that would effectively split the West Bank in two. Alea iacta est. (The die has been cast.)
Secretary of State Clinton did some perfunctory tut-tutting, but nothing substantive, nothing that would upset Netanyahu's American supporters (after all, she's got her own election year down the road). In Europe, by contrast, five nations called in their ambassadors from Israel and read them the riot act. And rightly so. The death of the two-state solution is no small thing.
Israel's supporters blame the Palestinians for provoking Netanyahu with their UN move. Palestine's supporters blame Netanyahu for setting impossible pre-conditions for renewed peace talks. He said/she said: par for the course in the Middle East. And irrelevant.
What is relevant is where all this is heading. Netanyahu will be re-elected, Israel's right wing in his pocket, its left wing is non-existent. Palestinian President Abbas is increasingly a non-entity, upstaged by Hamas and done no favors by Israel. He'll want to regain some credibility, perhaps eventually, with Palestine's new status at the UN, bringing Israel before the International Criminal Court, what it fears most. In the meantime, the heating up of the Arab Spring continues, and with it, the de-secularization of the Arab World.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, despite strong opposition seems headed for a victory in its referendum next week that will formally Islamize the Egyptian revolution. In the haze of civil war, predicting who will ultimately replace Syria's secular Assad regime is impossible, but it's clear the next government will be more Islamic. Lebanon's balance of power is currently in Hezbollah's hands. And while Iraq's Shiite government may not be under mullah control, it is strongly influenced by Iran. Jordan, under King Abdullah, remains relatively secular. For how long?
And if Israel's religious parties are hardly equal in strength to their Muslim counterparts in the rest of the Middle East, the religious right is stronger in Israel than it's ever been. Even so, nothing dramatic will happen. Certainly, no Arab country, or any coalition of Arab countries, will dare challenge the military might of Israel. Rockets from Gaza will continue sporadically, but they will lead to few casualties along with an occasional overwhelming response from Israel.
But if there's no drama, no sudden defining moment, what is happening, gradually, ineluctably, is the international isolation of Israel. Another UN General Assembly vote earlier this week, demanding that Israel join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and open its nuclear program to international inspection, found Israel with but five supporters, the US and Canada, again joined by that dynamic trio of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
Two weeks ago, I wrote, in a wishful vein — well after all it was Thanksgiving — that what was needed was for Obama to coordinate an imposed solution. Wishful thinking indeed. Obama isn't up to it.
For the foreseeable future, the US, driven by strong lobbying from AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, will continue to vote for Israel with the result, counter-productive for both countries, of an ever-harder line Israel and the ever-diminishing influence of the US in the Middle East. With Israel's international support limited to the US while the Arab World continues in turmoil, Israel will grow more defiant, more nationalistic, further isolating itself. Even Israeli trade with Europe will gradually be affected. And, eventually, boycotting of those companies involved with the occupation will become a serious tool.
There will be no exit for Israel, no way out if it continues to morph into a Mediterranean version of Cuba — militaristic, the self-proclaimed "only democracy" in the region (if you don't count the 4 million Palestinians under its harsh colonial thumb), and isolated, with the US acting in its supporting role as the old Soviet Union. Israel will have its own boat people, intellectuals and secular liberals, even its entrepreneurs. Unlike Cubans, they will emigrate freely, traveling comfortably to the US or Europe, but, as Israel's isolation grows, leave they will.
How will it all end? And when? Who knows. But unless Israel can produce its own Sadat, a leader who can rise up, breaking free from Israel's extreme rightward projection, and offer a fair peace to the Palestinians, Israel's future is bleak. They can win the military battles, but the key battle they're facing, the ultimate one down the road — that of worldwide public opinion — is one they are starting to lose.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owl's Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.