News Analysis / James M. Dorsey: Palestinian march will test Israel’s resolve


Israel may become the latest Middle Eastern country to be targeted by the six month-old Arab revolt that has toppled the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia and racked Libya, Syria and Yemen.

Facebook pages are calling for thousands of Palestinians to gather on Sunday on Israel’s borders in a bid to cross into pre-1967 Israel. Sunday marks the 44th anniversary of the start of the 1967 Middle East War in which Israel captured East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Unlike the protests elsewhere in the Middle East that focus on demands for greater political freedom and economic opportunity, the Palestinian protest aims to force Israel to halt construction of settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and make concessions needed to break the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

If the organizers succeed in galvanizing Palestinian public opinion and mobilizing significant numbers, the protest could be the starting shot of perhaps the most serious Palestinian challenge to Israeli policy to date.

Although termed the Palestinians’ “third intifada” in reference to two earlier Palestinian uprisings, the key to success this time round will be whether the organizers can attract a sufficiently large crowd, ensure that it remains strictly non-violent and motivate protesters to demonstrate the degree of persistence and resilience that demonstrators in Syria and Yemen have exhibited.

That would create a dilemma for Israel that prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East.

Allowing the persistent and continued protests to continue would focus international attention on Palestinian demands and increase pressure on the international community to step up efforts to persuade Israel to halt its settlement activity and engage in serious peace talks with the Palestinians. It could also impact Israeli public opinion.

On the other hand, the use of excessive force by Israeli security forces to suppress the protest would put Israel in the same corner as the regimes of Syria and Yemen that are brutally cracking down on anti-government protesters who have so far refused to buckle under. It would create a situation in which the United States and Europe would find it increasingly difficult to shy away from condemning Israel.

In essence, if successful, the protests would create a no-win situation for Israel, a rare achievement in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, obviously conscious of the dilemma Israel may be about to confront, warned this week that Israel would act with restraint, but decisively, to prevent the protesters from crossing its borders.

“Like any country in the world, Israel has the right and duty to guard and defend its borders. Therefore my instructions are clear, to act with restraint, but with the necessary decisiveness to protect our borders, our communities and our citizens,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

Sunday’s protest is inspired by the mass anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world and an attempt by Palestinians last month to cross Israel’s borders from Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip on the 63rd anniversary of the creation of Israeli. Dozens of Palestinians managed to penetrate the border from Syria into the Golan Heights. Israeli security forces killed thirteen people in those protests.

Much like his Arab counterparts, Mr. Netanyahu charged that foreign elements were responsible for last month’s protests. The Israeli leader pointed his finger at Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah and Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip.

An adviser to Palestine Authority President Mahmud Abbas, Sabri Saidam, described last month’s protest as a rehearsal for this Sunday’s march. A Hamas Website has called on Palestinians outside of Palestine to fly to Israel’s Ben Gurion airport on Sunday in support of the protests.

The protest fits into Mr. Abbas’ strategy to no longer exclusively rely on US efforts to resolve the Palestinian problem. Mr. Abbas is campaigning for recognition by the United Nations General Assembly this fall of a Palestinian state with Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries as its borders. An assembly vote in favor would not create the state but would shape the legal and political framework on which negotiations with Israel would be resumed.

The protest, moreover, if successful, would put not only Mr. Netanyahu between a rock and a hard place but also US President Barak Obama. Mr. Netanyahu in a wide-ranging Middle East policy speech last month described a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as urgent, insisted that the borders of a future Palestinian stated needed to be based on the pre-1967 boundaries and defended the rights of unarmed, peaceful protesters across the Middle East and North Africa.

Mr. Obama’s reference to borders constituted a significant gesture toward the Palestinians even if they reject some of the modalities for a Palestinian state that the president enunciated, including his backing for Israel’s demand that the state be demilitarized as well as his refusal to include Hamas in peace talks as long as the group does not recognize Israel.

Nonetheless, Mr. Obama’s credibility in the Arab world could be further tarnished if he failed to support the Palestinians’ right to protest and to condemn Israel should it employ excessive violence in its bid to stop the protests.

In the final analysis, Sunday’s protest could give Palestinians the kind of moral high ground in international public opinion that they seldom have enjoyed at a time at which the right to peaceful protest in the Middle East is at the forefront of international concerns. It is an opportunity that Palestinians are creating but also one that is theirs to lose.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])