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Focus on Yemen, not Israel-Palestine

This is a cross post by Aymenn Jawad

As summer draws to a close, much speculation has arisen in the media on the upcoming direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which the Obama administration hopes will bring about a lasting agreement and a viable Palestinian state within a year. Meanwhile, news has just come out concerning the start of Qatari-mediated talks between the central government of Yemen led by Ali Abdullah Saleh and Shi’a Houthi rebels based in the north of Yemen.

Although these talks are unlikely to receive anywhere near the same level of attention as the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the U.S. should, in fact, act as a mediator in the Yemeni peace talks, and concentrate on urging the Houthi rebels and the central Yemeni government to reach a worthwhile peace agreement, while leaving the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations alone. The reasons for such a shift in policy is necessary are many.

First, although an eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is something to be desired, it has little bearing on the present Middle Eastern Cold War. People in the Arab world are largely indifferent to the current round of negotiations. A recent survey conducted by the Al-Arabiya television network, for example, discovered that 71% of respondents had no interest in the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Such an attitude of apathy is not at all surprising: Al-Arabiya conducted a similar large-scale survey in May 2005 and found that only 8% of respondents saw “the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict” as the main obstacle to “development in the Arab world;” and only 10% regarded resolving the conflict as “the fastest way to achieve development in the Arab world.”

These data should put to rest the notion of “linkage,” the idea that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to dealing with the problem of Iran’s goal of becoming the dominant power in the region.

Proponents of “linkage” argue that Iran is increasing its influence because it is playing on resentment about the ongoing conflict, but how can this be so when surveys from Al-Arabiya consistently illustrate a lack of interest amongst Arabs in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the peace process?

Second, as far as U.S. security interests are concerned, the situation in Yemen is far more worrisome and urgent. At present, Yemen is the scene of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as Saudi Arabia backs the central government in its campaign to suppress a Shi’a Houthi revolt in the north – a rebellion, which began in 2004, now being supported by Iran. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia has conducted several indiscriminate airstrikes on Yemeni territory; these have killed scores of innocent civilians and have only stirred up more animosity among Houthis towards Ali Abdullah Saleh’s central government, thereby creating a seemingly intractable cycle of warfare.

The situation is further aggravated in the south by an active separatist movement that has the declared support of “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP). The AQAP has taken advantage of the destabilization of Yemen to gain a foothold from which to wage an insurgency campaign to overthrow the central government as part of Al-Qaeda’s international jihad. Given that AQAP was likely behind the attempted Christmas Day bombing, the threat emanating from Yemen-based Islamist militants must be taken seriously.

Although the Houthis are Shi’a and the central government mostly Sunni, the northern revolt is actually rooted in a rightfully perceived lack of sharing-of-power and oil wealth for the inhabitants of the north of Yemen, rather than as a religious dispute (several key figures in the Yemeni government, including Ali Abdullah Saleh himself, are Shi’a). The Houthis thus have legitimate grievances that can be easily addressed; hence, they need not serve as proxies for Iran in the Arabian Peninsula.

It follows that the U.S., as one of the Yemeni government’s chief backers, can play a key role in reconciliation by assuaging fears that the Houthis are attempting to take over all of Yemen.

It is likely, therefore, that the goal of a lasting peace settlement will allow the Yemeni government to focus its efforts on the Al-Qaeda and the separatist movements in the south. In contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian talks will probably not progress very far, owing to a range of issues, including settlement construction as a precondition for negotiations; recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and the influence of hardliners in Fatah — despite the moderation of the likes of Salam Fayyad.

The required alteration of policy towards Yemen entails a number of recommendations. Above all, the U.S. should persuade Saudi Arabia to stop conducting airstrikes in Yemeni territory: these only fuel the Houthi insurgency and tilt it further toward Iran.

In addition, the Obama administration would do well to put pressure on Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government to stamp out corruption and thereby allow for a greater allocation of oil revenues to the north of Yemen. This might involve, for example, financial incentives for greater transparency, which could also alleviate to a certain extent the country’s water crisis that is particularly affecting the south, and thereby garnering popular support for the southern separatist movement led by former officials from the defunct Republic of South Yemen. Since 2005, Yemen has dropped farther down Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index” to a low, in 2009, of 154th out of 180 countries.

Finally, the U.S. might wish to consider urging the central government to grant semi-autonomy to the country’s north, but should in any case halt drone attacks. As in Somalia, the U.S. faces a situation where overt military intervention undermines its allies.

These changes in policy will not only contain Iran’s influence, but also the threat of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Concentrating on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, however, which will at best be protracted over a much longer time, at the expense of neglecting the conflict in Yemen, only amounts to allowing potential destabilization across the south of the Arabian Peninsula.