Why the Obama Administration is Failing in its Efforts to Stop the Palestinians’ U.N. Bid

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A chair meant to represent a proposed United Nations seat for Palestine is seen after a press conference at United Nations headquarters in New York, September 15, 2011. (Photo: Justin Lane / EPA)

The Obama Administration is flailing — and failing — in its eleventh-hour efforts to stop a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood next week. It’s as if Washington has woken in a panic after sleeping through its diplomatic alarm clock, and discovering that it has missed history’s bus. The Administration has dispatched delegations of the usual suspects to the region, as if the presence of the likes of U.S. envoy Dennis Ross, longtime taxidermist of the peace-process, will somehow persuade Palestinian leaders that the decade of frustration that finally sent them to the U.N. over Washington’s objections was simply a bad dream — and that it’s time for another round of White House photo ops.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sounding like the whizz-kid on the debate team finding herself having to defend the proposition that the world is flat, insists that the only way the Palestinians can end Israel’s occupation and achieve independence is through direct negotiations with the Israelis, under U.S. auspices — in other words, by returning to the strategy that has failed them for the past two decades, with no reason to expect a different outcome. When the Obama Administration, ostensibly wielding the power of being Israel’s prime benefactor and patron — albeit hobbled by a domestic political consensus that precludes challenging Israel — has demanded actions or statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to indicate his seriousness about moving towards the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution, it has been rebuffed; why would the Palestinians, with no leverage of their own, expect to succeed where Obama failed with Netanyahu?

The observer can only marvel at the facial-muscle control of U.S. officials who warn Palestinian leaders that going ahead with a U.N. vote would “destroy the peace process”. As far as the Palestinians are concerned, the peace process for the past decade has been a hollow set of rituals with no relevance to the situation on the ground. There has been no “process” towards ending the occupation since the Taba talks in January of 2001. The informal chats between President Mahmoud Abbas and then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arranged by the Bush Administration were never more than an exercise in hypotheticals, which failed even to achieve their stated goal of a “shelf agreement”, i.e. one that would be implemented one fine day in the unforeseeable future.

Secretary Clinton may insist that the road to Palestinian statehood “does not run through New York”. Her problem, of course — the reason that we’re even having this conversation — is that the Palestinian leadership is belatedly recognizing that the route that runs through Washington remains closed for the foreseeable future, and 76-year-old Abbas suddenly became unwilling to see out his days metaphorically waiting patiently in the backseat of a limo idling on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Approaching the U.N. had never been Abbas’ first choice. He had bet his entire political career on the expectation that jumping through whatever hoops the White House placed in front of him would eventually earn him the reward of statehood. It was only once Obama had allowed his promises to the Arab world to be shredded by Netanyahu that Abbas signed on to the uncharacteristically risky tactic.

Even then, he has constantly reminded Washington and the Israelis over the past six months that he’d prefer to resume negotiations, and that all it would take to get them restarted would be a freeze on Israeli settlement construction outside its 1967 borders — in keeping with international law and even with the Obama Administration’s own position — and basing peace talks on the parameters for a two-state peace accepted by the overwhelming majority of the international community, including the Obama Administration. Abbas knows, of course, that Netanyahu simply doesn’t accept the international consensus that a negotiated solution be based on the 1967 borders (with mutually agreed land-swaps), East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, and a fair solution agreeable to both sides on the refugee issue . Netanyahu still expects the Palestinians (and the world) to settle for less. But Abbas, the most accommodating  Palestinian leader the Israelis will likely ever face across the negotiating table, and has made clear that he won’t (and can’t) settle for anything less, nor does the world expect him to.

It is the fact exclusive U.S. control of the “peace process” has brought the Israelis no closer to embracing the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution that has brought the issue to the U.N. Domestic politics in Washington restricts the White House to the Dennis Ross approach of never asking the Israelis to do anything their government is not comfortable doing; but what Netanyahu is comfortable doing is simply not enough to satisfy the rest of the world, which sees settling the conflict and ending the occupation as decades overdue.

While Netanyahu has twice successfully stared down the  Obama Administration — on the issue of a settlement freeze, and over basing negotiations on the 1967 borders — in doing so he has also left the U.S. unable to shield the Israelis from mounting diplomatic pressure. To put it politely, the Administration’s claim that going to the U.N. somehow disrupts an ongoing peace process between the two sides is not given much credibility in foreign capitals.

Moreover, as  former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy has warned, the Israeli leader will take any defeat of or setback to the Palestinian U.N. initiative as proof that resolute defiance of the international consensus will win the day. Indeed, Netanyahu announced Thursday that he plans to address the U.N. General Assembly on the same day as the Palestinians present their proposals, promising to “tell the truth” to a forum that may not want to hear it. The extent to which Netanyahu wins U.S. and European backing for his opposition to the U.N. vote, Levy warns, will actually reinforce Netanyahu’s hard line and make prospects for a two-state solution even more remote.

The Europeans are his target audience, declaring that their support or neutrality on the issue would be a “moral victory”. That puts the Europeans in a bind, of course: On the one hand, clinging to a belief that only the United States can deliver Israel’s consent to a two-state solution, they remain preternaturally reluctant to act at odds with Washington; on the other hand, they recognize that Israel will not willingly embrace the international consensus on terms for such a solution, and they want the U.S. to take a lead in more forcefully prescribing the parameters for the peace talks to which both sides will be expected to hew. Many believe, in fact, that a two-state solution would have to be effectively imposed, leaving the parties no choice on the broad parameters even if it’s left to them to negotiate over their implementation.

An internationally-imposed partition of the Holy Land is hardly a novel idea; That’s exactly how Israel came into being. Recognizing that the Palestinian Arabs would not agree to more than half of British-ruled Palestine, in which they were the majority, being carved off for a separate Jewish state, the U.N. nonetheless voted to prescribe such a partition in 1947.

That didn’t settle matters, of course; the two sides fought a war first (involving troops from all of Israel’s Arab neighbors), which saw Israel grow its share of the partition from 55% to 78%, and which turned half the Palestinian population into refugees.

So, contra Clinton’s claim that the road to statehood doesn’t run through New York — or the Orwellian habit of U.S. officials dubbing as “unilateral” the act of putting the matter before the most multilateral institution on the planet — it was in New York that Israel’s right to exist was established as an intractable article of international law, by its recognition as a U.N. member state in 1949. But international recognition of Israel’s right to exist was inextricably tied, by the U.N., to the creation of a Palestinian Arab state alongside it — the creation of a Palestinian state was effectively agreed in principle by the U.N. in 1947, and was never deemed contingent on Israel’s consent to its existence.

Sure, Israel currently occupies the territory on which such a state would be established, but the U.N. has never recognized the legitimacy of Israel’s claim to any of the territories it conquered in the 1967 war — the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Sinai and the Golan Heights. And the U.N. Security Council has ruled that the civilians Israel has housed in those territories were settled in violation of international law.

Fretting over the toxic long-term consequences of the protracted stalemate,  the Europeans have, over the past two years, pressed the Obama Administration to join international partners in laying down a framework for negotiations based on the international consensus, even if that was opposed by the Netanyahu government. In other words, to make clear to the Israelis where they’ll have to get to if they want international backing for their position. But Obama’s domestic political situation precludes that — facing a tough reelection battle, he’s going to steer clear of any new clash of wills with the Israeli leader. That’s why although most of the European powers hope to keep the issue out of the Security Council — where recognition of Palestine as a member state would be vetoed by the U.S. — many may still vote for a more limited form of recognition in the General Assembly, as a symbolic codification of the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations.

That codification is precisely what some Israeli officials fear, of course, still hoping to force the Palestinians to settle for less. But that’s a vain hope. And Israel hasn’t given Obama enough to allow the Americans to do anything more than damage control through trying to restart negotiations after the U.N. vote. Even that may be a tall order, with the gulf between the two sides as wide as ever, and the domestic political calculations in the U.S., Israel and the Palestinian Authority making it more difficult than ever to bridge.

The U.N. showdown next week, whatever form it takes, is the long-delayed funeral of the peace process as we’ve known it. What comes next is anybody’s guess — although the changes in the region over the past year underscore the fact that the situation may well be slipping beyond the control of either President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu or President Abbas.