New Moves, Old Problems Stir Up the Mideast


Once again events in the Middle East are unfolding like the ever shape-shifting sands of the region’s deserts.  Consider these recent events:

  • Borrowing a page from the 1973 Yom Kippur attack, Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group that is the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, chose the first night of Passover to stage a “March of Return” at Israel’s border with Gaza. The protest by an estimated 30,000 Palestinians quickly became violent, with deadly results. 

  • President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority outlined at the United Nations his “peace plan,” a combination of boilerplate rhetoric and a few positive elements. But his shrill language distracted from what might be a meaningful steptoward a two-state solution.

  • In a surprise announcement, President Donald Trump said he plans to withdraw American troops from a war-torn province of Syria. The ill-advised move has puzzled some of his own inner circle and seems to be repeating mistakes made by former President Barack Obama by ceding the last enclave controlled by ISIS to the Russian and Iranian forces who have kept Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in power.

The “March of Return” organizers say that the March 30 date was selected because that date is when Palestinians mark “Land Day.” However, Hamas organizers of the demonstration were likely pleased that their selected date just happened to coincide with the first seder, when Israel Defense Forces soldiers and police would be sitting down with their families to celebrate that significant holiday.

Hamas leader Khaled Abu Tomah reiterated the rejection of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the goal of a two-state solution, telling The Times of Israel:  “The protests mark the beginning of our return to ‘All Palestine.’ ” 

At the feckless United Nations, Kuwait introduced yet another resolution condemning Israel for the Gaza attacks that Hamas has been only too proud to organize and exploit. Under Hamas, the once-prosperous Gaza Strip has fallen into a major economic and humanitarian crisis, and it is using the “March of Return” as a diversionary tactic.  The Trump administration pledge of economic assistance to Gaza and its citizens could be too little too late.

The Abbas “peace plan” has come to the surface in the midst of severe rhetoric, with the Palestinian president calling David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a  “son of a dog,” and repeatedly denouncing Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Among other elements, the Abbas proposal calls for an international Mideast peace conference; acceptance of Palestine as a full member state at the United Nations; and a request that the Security Council arrange mutual recognition between Israel and Palestine and suspension of any “unilateral” moves by any party, including the U.S. move of its embassy to Jerusalem.  

The Abbas plan also calls for Jerusalem to be the capital of the State of Palestine and that borders be based on those of June 4, 1967, before the Six-Day War altered the map of the region.  

During his visit here last month, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami praised the Abbas plan. While the proposal contains several nonstarters and perhaps some clever poison pills, it is at least a concrete, detailed, written proposal that could serve as the basis for future negotiations if language in the debate becomes more diplomatic and less hysterical.

While it might be tempting to dismiss the Abbas Plan out of hand, a close reading of its details offer some glimmers of hope. It is the first statement by Abbas explicitly endorsing a two-state solution and acknowledging that such issues as Jerusalem must be resolved to make that happen. However, the 1967 borders he suggests would leave Israel extremely vulnerable to being “cut in two” by invading armies. The fact that Abbas delivered an in-person and detailed plan to a meeting of the Security Council is also a positive step. Now Israel should release its own detailed counter-proposal so that the two parties, with help from Europe, the United States and other interested parties could begin final status talks without pre-conditions. A faint hope, but worth exploring.

Finally, there is the matter of Trump’s ill-timed and unwise decision to freeze more than $200 million in funds for recovery efforts in Syria and to withdraw 2,000 American troops from the sliver of Syria that was previously under the control of ISIS.  

Russia has provided military support to the army of Syrian dictator Assad, who is responsible for more than 400,000 deaths of his own people and the displacement of more than 10 million people. Trump severely criticized Obama for failing to live up to its threat to attack Syria after it was shown to have used chemical weapons.

To his credit, Trump ordered Tomahawk missile strikes against launching sites in Syria after an attack on civilians. But he is playing into the hands of critics who claim he is “soft on Putin” by allowing the newly re-elected Russian president an even more secure sphere of influence in Syria.

Once again, anyone who thought the situation in the Middle East could not get any less stable has been proved wrong.  As turmoil continues to roil the ranks of those in charge of foreign policy at the White House, we hope wiser heads will influence our leaders to take measured and positive steps in each of the burgeoning crises. 

Failure to act will only increase the instability and misery in that troubled region.