Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 28 April 2014

Palestinian unity move leads an eventful week

What a week that was, with three major events showing the world in flux – the move towards Palestinian political unity, the deepening West-Russia crisis over Ukraine and Barrack Obama’s visit to Asia. 


Last week was very eventful for global affairs indeed.  Three events stood out: the announcement of unity between the two major rival Palestinian political parties; the worsening crisis in the Eastern part of Ukraine, and the United States President’s four-country visit to Asia.  These events show a world in continuous flux.

The joint press conference by Fatah, the most important component of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) that controls the West Bank and Hamas, the Islamic party that controls the Gaza Strip, announcing that they had decided to unite was surprising because these two had been bitter and at times deadly rivals.  The split among these Palestinian factions had weakened the struggle to end Israeli occupation and establish an independent state.

The news was thus much welcomed among the masses of Palestinians as well as their supporters worldwide.  The unity move came just ahead of the 29 April deadline for reaching agreement in the Israel-Palestinian peace talks organised by the United States.

The talks had stalled in recent weeks and it is now certain the deadline will pass in failure and without any prospect for success in the near future as the future of the talks itself is in doubt.  Israel responded angrily to the unity announcement.  It decided to suspend the talks, claiming that the Palestinian Authority had now chosen Hamas over peace.  

But the Palestinian Authority led by Fatah had already lost faith in the “peace process”.   Israel has continued to build settlements on Palestinian territory in the West Bank, showing its lack of respect for the peace process.   When Israel did not keep to its agreement to release a batch of Palestinian prisoners as part of the peace process in late March, the Palestinian Authority had gone ahead with measures to accredit Palestine as a state in 15 international organisations, a move that in turn angered Israel.

It was partly this loss of faith in Israel’s intentions and in the peace process that drove the Fatah leadership to seek reconciliation with Hamas.  Meanwhile Hamas has been affected by the deterioration of the situation in Gaza, with Israel’s continuing siege causing hardships to the people, and the change in Egypt from a regime that was favourable to Hamas to one that is hostile and which destroyed most of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt that enabled the passage of food and other essentials that bypassed the Israeli siege.

The details of the unity deal are to be worked out.  According to media reports, Hamas would join the PLO, while a joint government made up of technocrats would be formed and it would work towards unity between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and prepare for elections within six months.

There have been several previous failed attempts between the two Palestinian political factions to make their own peace and form an alliance. There is thus a certain degree of skepticism whether this unity move will work.  But Palestinians and their supporters have higher hopes that what had failed before will work this time, simply because the Palestinians have lost faith that the present peace process will lead anywhere, and they feel the need to unite to continue their struggle for independence through various means.

Supporters of the Palestinians are also making progress on initiatives to boycott Israeli products made in the occupied West Bank, and to get institutions to disinvest in companies and funds that invest in Israel.  They hope that this will put pressure on Israel to finally make peace.

Last week, the Ukraine crisis worsened as militants in many Eastern cities continued to occupy government offices and facilities, while the authorities in Kiev sent in tanks and troops to the region aimed at recapturing the government facilities and restoring power to the central government.  But the army was having a tough time, and armed conflict took place in several places.

The leaders in Kiev and in the US and Europe have squarely put the blame on Russia, claiming that the Russians are behind the revolt in the Eastern region.  The Ukrainian president even accused Russia of wanting to start a World War Three.  President Obama, during the second leg of his Asian tour, in South Korea, condemned Moscow and announced that another round of sanctions would be placed on selected Russians.             

But the Russians have their own story.  They accuse the Western countries of supporting a right-wing coup in Kiev.  They deny being the instigators of the pro-Russian Eastern Ukrainian militants, and they warn the Kiev authorities not to militarily crack down on the “rebels” in Eastern Ukraine, otherwise Russia may be forced to intervene.

The bigger implication is that the Ukraine crisis is causing a major split (and a potential for serious conflict) between the US and Europe on one hand, and Russia on the other hand.  This is reviving the “Cold War” with dimensions that include politics, security, finance and trade.

Russia is being pushed into a corner and may react by being less dependent on the West and more self reliant as well as by reaching out more on others that can be economic partners potential political allies.

It looks as if the clash between the West and Russia will worsen and this will have serious implications for the developing countries, even for those which are not taking sides in the conflict.

Finally last week also saw President Obama making his rapid tour through four Asian countries.

It was an attempt to make up for missing a previous planned trip to Asia last year.  The first leg of the Asian tour in Japan saw a frenzied attempt by the US President and the Japanese Prime Minister and their Ministers to break the impasse in their bilateral trade negotiations, which is holding up progress in the whole Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, which is seen as the economic component of the US “pivot” (or shift in priorities) towards Asia.      

But the differences between the two countries were too deep and Obama left Japan empty handed as far as the TPPA was concerned.   In his next stop to Korea, Obama had become distracted by the need for him to respond to fast developing events in Ukraine, which he had to respond to.

By Saturday, Obama was in Malaysia and facing a crammed programme.  Even before he arrived, there were issues on whether Malaysia would be under pressure on the TPPA and speculation on what the leaders would discuss in relation to the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, and on who Obama will meet during his Malaysian visit.

By press time for this column, the Obama visit to Malaysia had not yet concluded so it is not possible to comment further on it.

But surely this has been a week crammed with very interesting and important developments, which will have effects for the rest of this year and even longer.