Last month The Economist carried a cover story titled "The World's Most Dangerous Border." (May 21) It described the growing tensions between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, whose armies fought three wars since 1948. Kashmir, claimed by both sides, is a flash point where extremists intend to precipitate another war. Rivalry for influence in Afghanistan after NATO departs is one more danger point.
Washington finds itself in a delicate position diplomatically. It cemented relations with New Delhi three years ago by concluding a nuclear sharing arrangement and greatly expanding trade with this emerging superpower. It also works with Pakistan's military to pursue the war in Afghanistan against Taliban insurgents, whose bases are in Pakistan.
Last month relations between Washington and Islamabad were severely strained after the CIA and Navy Seals conducted a secret operation inside Pakistan to find and kill Osama bin Laden. President Obama decided against alerting the country's leaders, to avoid security leaks. The episode proved highly embarrassing for the Pakistani military.
The Near East, comprising countries that border the eastern Mediterranean, is a second danger zone where major conflict could break out this year.
The issue that may trigger a confrontation is the Palestinian Authority's decision, supported by Egypt and the Arab League, to ask the United Nations General Assembly to support Palestinian statehood that comprises territory where Palestinians lived before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the Golan Heights in Syria, after the war.
The so-called peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, pursued by four U.S. presidents--George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama--has failed to produce an agreement that creates a viable Palestinian state and guarantees Israel's future security.
Two years ago, Barack Obama proposed a resumption of peace talks and called on Israel to suspend new construction in the disputed West Bank territory and East Jerusalem. Israel partially complied, but it put a time limit on the suspension. Last fall it resumed new construction projects, and further negotiations were ended.
Now the Arab Spring, the massive demonstrations sweeping across the Arab world demanding freedom and democracy, gives Palestinians a powerful new incentive to press the quest for statehood. Their leaders, supported by a new Egyptian government, has concluded that the fifteen-year peace-process was not only a failure, it gave Israel more time to build additional settlements on lands that Palestinians consider their homeland.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia also decided that President Obama, despite his stirring speech on Palestinian statehood in Cairo two years ago, is simply incapable of persuading Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to accept a peace formula that had been supported by presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush, and the major European countries.
Obama opposes Palestinian efforts to gain statehood through a U.N. General Assembly resolution. Presumably, if the issue comes before the Security Council, Washington would cast a veto. It argues that statehood can only be obtained through negotiations with Israel.
India showed enormous restraint two years ago when terrorists, backed by elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), launched a major attack on tourist facilities in Mumbai (Bombay) and killed 166 people, including six Americans. Despite public clamor in India for retaliation, its government resisted taking military action but suspended diplomatic talks that were underway to reduce tensions.
How should President Obama respond if another attack occurs and can be traced to the ISI, if India retaliates with an armed attack on Pakistan and it responds by using a nuclear weapon against India?
Similarly, how should Obama respond if thousands of unarmed Palestinians move into isolated Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and Israeli troops and the settlers kill many demonstrators?
A full-scale Middle East war is unlikely because Israel has a preponderance of military power, including nuclear weapons. But a major uprising by unarmed Palestinians demanding the return of their land would pose a serious dilemma for Washington. Would it soften its condemnation of the Libyan, Yemeni, and Syrian governments for shooting civilian protestors? Would it disavow Israel's armed action against Palestinians who want to return to their lands?
And how would the U.S. Congress, which gave Mr. Netanyahu a rousing reception two weeks ago, respond to calls for sending U.S. troops to the West Bank as peacekeepers, if Israel's prime minister requested them?
File last modified on Wednesday, 08-JUN-2011 10:23 AM EST