Regional Rivalry Muddying the Waters

By Ghassan Khatib

The tension between Israel, Syria and Lebanon has carried indirect negative consequences for Palestinians. Even though it is correct to say that at the moment there is no serious or promising peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis to be disrupted, the tension, on the one hand, and Syria and its regional alliances on the other, can play an important role in influencing the domestic Palestinian situation as well as Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Recent years have witnessed a growing interrelationship between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other regional conflicts. This in turn has increased the influence and role of regional actors both on the conflict and on domestic Palestinian affairs. This influence has become especially pronounced with the gradual weakening of the Palestinian leadership that resulted from the deterioration and ultimate failure of the peace process upon which this leadership had gambled so much.

It has become evident that Palestine, like Lebanon and Iraq, is being affected by the ongoing regional rivalry between Iran and the United States that started with the Iraq invasion and US attempts to weaken Iran and interfere in its domestic affairs including with its nuclear program. With an American military presence on its borders in Iraq, the Arab Gulf and Afghanistan, Iran has been motivated to play its cards against this growing American hegemony. These developments coincided with the collapse of the peace process, the moderate and secular leadership associated with it and the rise of Hamas and its victory in Palestinian elections and subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip.

Throughout this period, Syria was the connection between Iran and the Islamist forces in Palestine. Syria was happy to play this role in order to strengthen its position vis-a-vis Israel, which still occupies Syrian territory, as well as in reaction to US-supported attempts to weaken its influence in Lebanon. Syria justifies hanging on to its tenuous role in Lebanon by citing the possible growing influence of Israel there, since part of the anti-Syrian Lebanese forces happen to be aligned with the US and thus by extension, Israel.

This complex regional situation has a hand in the domestic Palestinian deterioration. On the public sentiment level, regardless of ideological bent, Palestinians are solidly in support of the anti-American camp. Against this background the growing tension between the Syrian government and its allies in Lebanon and Israel is part of a larger regional picture that can only burden the fragile Palestinian-Israeli negotiations process as well as further deepen domestic Palestinian tensions. Those aligned with Syria in the Palestinian political context, in addition to the vast majority of the Palestinian public, will only further doubt any Israeli willingness to allow the process to move forward.

Since this growing tension and its negative consequences on Palestinian-Israeli relations are part of the general regional polarization, the best hope of reversing this situation comes from a new American approach to the region when the next administration takes office. But any cosmetic or partial measures will not halt the deterioration. A new regional US approach that includes reversing the growing American presence and hegemony coupled with adherence to international law and an avoidance of double standards is called for. This may allow a regional environment to develop that is more conducive to improving Syrian-Israel as well as Palestinian-Israeli relations.

-Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. (This article was originally published in Bitterlemons – – April 14, 2004)

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