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Palestine: back to square one

IF THE purpose of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in asking the United Nations to grant statehood to his people was simply to concentrate the international community's urgent attention on the issue, while bolstering his political support at home, he has succeeded. The enthusiastic applause of a majority of delegates for his speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday, and the rapturous celebrations in Palestinian cities, was evidence enough of that.

IF THE purpose of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in asking the United Nations to grant statehood to his people was simply to concentrate the international community's urgent attention on the issue, while bolstering his political support at home, he has succeeded. The enthusiastic applause of a majority of delegates for his speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday, and the rapturous celebrations in Palestinian cities, was evidence enough of that.

IF THE purpose of the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in asking the United Nations to grant statehood to his people was simply to concentrate the international community's urgent attention on the issue, while bolstering his political support at home, he has succeeded. The enthusiastic applause of a majority of delegates for his speech to the UN General Assembly on Friday, and the rapturous celebrations in Palestinian cities, was evidence enough of that.

Whether his bold diplomatic gambit has hastened the day when Palestinians achieve an independent nation is a very different question. At least in the view of the Israeli and US governments, and some others, it might have made it more difficult to break the long deadlock that has bedevilled the peace process. Even if the Palestinians can muster the necessary nine votes for statehood in the UN Security Council - and, given the immense pressure being applied by the US to potential supporters, that now seems less likely - the Obama administration has vowed to veto it.

In the meantime, the Abbas ploy seems, if anything, to have hardened attitudes on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Notwithstanding the challenge on Friday by the Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Abbas to resume negotiations immediately, Netanyahu insists the priority must be unequivocal Palestinian acceptance of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state within secure borders. Abbas says he will not return to the bargaining table unless Israel stops settlement activity on the West Bank and in Arab areas of Jerusalem.

So success prospects for a hastily contrived diplomatic initiative by the so-called Quartet - the US, the European Union, the UN and Russia - look bleak. The idea is to avoid, or postpone, a UN showdown by getting the two sides to reopen negotiations, based on set deadlines, leading to a two-state resolution in a year - a tall order.

But it is worth a try. Otherwise everybody stands to lose. Barack Obama - his credibility in the Islamic world already damaged by bowing to pre-election domestic pressures and taking an increasingly pro-Israeli stance - risks alienating the forces of democratic change in the Middle East that he has (selectively) encouraged. Israel, increasingly at loggerheads with Turkey and Egypt, formerly its most helpful neighbours, risks becoming even more isolated within its region. Abbas, by angering Obama and Congress, endangers crucial US financial support.

Where does that leave Australia? If the Palestinian statehood issue does come to a vote in the UN General Assembly, we should abstain.

A friendship gone sourALREADY under stress, the fragile alliance between the US and Pakistan has taken a fresh blow from none other than Admiral Mike Mullen, America's top military official. He has accused Pakistan's spy agency of being in cahoots with Haqqani, a terrorist network and ally of the Afghan Taliban. Given that the alliance is a key plank in the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan, this will only feed growing doubts among Australians about our commitment to that venture.

Shortly before his scheduled retirement as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mullen told a Senate committee in Washington last week that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) had helped Haqqani mount two attacks this month aimed directly at the US: an assault on the US embassy in Kabul, and a truck bomb that killed five Afghans and wounded 77 American soldiers. Mullen pulled no verbal punches. Haqqani was a "veritable arm" of the ISI. The Taliban and Haqqani operated from Pakistan "with impunity". And the Pakistani government was using these extremist groups as "proxies" to hedge its bets in the region.

Mullen's accusation was the gravest the US has made against Pakistan since the Afghanistan war started 10 years ago. His remarks suggested the exasperation of someone who had worked hard at nurturing a fractious relationship, and who felt there was now little left to lose. Mullen is said to have travelled at least 20 times to Pakistan over the past three years. Pakistan has denied his charges, and warned the US that it could lose Pakistan as an ally. If anything, this has sent the relationship even lower than its previous low point last May, when American commandos captured and killed Osama bin Laden, who had been sheltering, apparently with impunity, in Pakistan.

Just two days before Mullen's Washington broadside against Pakistan, a suicide bomber in Kabul murdered Burhanuddin Rabbani, Afghanistan's chief negotiator for a peace deal with the Taliban. The assassin's masters remain a mystery. If Haqqani is shown to have had a hand, America's anger with Pakistan for colluding with the enemy will only intensify.

Neither the substance of Mullen's salvo nor Rabbani's assassination augurs well for a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan. Mullen says the US must "reframe" its relationship with Pakistan. But how? Unless the sour feelings between these two nominal allies give way to something more constructive, the argument by Hugh White, of the Australian National University, will look evermore convincing: that Australia has no serious prospect of achieving the strategic objectives in Afghanistan we have proclaimed.


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