Smart Power? Not in the Middle East

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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the ideal test-bed for the proposition that the United States can compensate for the decline of its ability to influence events through military and economic muscle through “smart power“, putting diplomacy in the lead and leveraging more limited U.S. hard power through coalitions and making use of all the tools available to U.S. policy makers. In other words, more skillfully playing a weaker hand.

Monday’s vote to admit Palestine as a full member of Unesco, the U.N. cultural arm, was a sharp reminder of just how limited Washington’s influence — hard, soft and smart — has become in respect of the Middle East’s most intractable conflict. Only 13 states — including Israel, and four tiny Pacific Island nations — joined the U.S. in voting no to the Palestinian membership bid. That vote is but a minor skirmish in the larger diplomatic battle over Palestinian statehood at the U.N. Still, the outcome has obliged Washington, under U.S. law, to cut its $80 million annual financial contribution to Unesco, weakening an important vehicle of U.S. “soft power” influence through the projects supporting U.S. goals in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The fact that the Palestinians are turning to the U.N.  is a symptom of the collapse of the U.S.-authored peace process. While Washington scolds the Palestinians, insisting that the only way they’ll get a state is through negotiations with Israel, the Palestinian leadership has recognized that the Israelis are not willing to concede the minimum basis of what they — and the international community — would deem an acceptable two-state solution to the conflict. And they’ve learned, also, that domestic politics precludes the U.S. from pressing Israel make any concessions its leaders are reluctant to make. The Unesco vote underscores the fact that they have the sympathy of much of the international community in bringing the matter to the United Nations, where the Palestinians’ right to statehood on land currently occupied by Israel is an established principle. 

Besides voting no, the U.S. and its closest allies are trying to create the impression of an ongoing peace process, dispatching Quartet envoy Tony Blair to shuttle between the parties in the hope of reviving talks. To no avail. Indeed, even the fact that the U.S. and its allies rely on the former British prime minister distrusted by the Palestinian leadership is a sign that they’re essentially treading water.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians believe there’s an agreement to be had in revived talks; to the extent that they play the game, it’s simply to lob the blame back across the net. That leaves a gaping great hole in the U.S. case that the Palestinian U.N. statehood bid should be rebuffed so as not to jeopardize negotiations: There simply are no negotiations underway, and Washington seems to be rather isolated to the extent that it believes the conflict is going to be resolved at the negotiating table on the basis of the current balance of forces — the gulf between the sides’ bottom lines is simply too vast. And that’s exactly why the Palestinians have brought the issue to the U.N. for adjudication.

But the Palestinian strategy suffers from gaping holes of its own. “Palestine”, even if it could muster nine ayes at the Security Council — a prospect currently in doubt  — won’t be admitted to U.N. as a member state because the U.S. has promised to veto such a move. Sure, that would further diminish Washington’s already tattered reputation in Arab civil society, but Arab civil society matters precious little in the U.S. domestic political equation. And it’s not clear what Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will do when his membership bid fails in the Security Council — a vote could come within two weeks, but could also be delayed by months.

The Palestinians could seek — and easily achieve — the consolation prize of an upgrade of their status in the U.N. General Assembly. That, too, would be symbolic, and wouldn’t change the reality of occupation on the ground for millions of Palestinians, although it could reinforce the Palestinian negotiating position by codifying the 1967 borders as the international consensus on the parameters for a two-state solution.

The largely symbolic nature of the U.N. bid, in fact, had allowed Hamas to steal the limelight from Abbas last month by securing the release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners in exchange for captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit — the release of prisoners is a far more concrete gain for Palestinians on the ground than the accoutrements of Playstation statehood. It’s on the ground, where settlements are growing and settlers are becoming more violently provocative, that Abbas’ strategy will be judged by his own people.

Realizing they’d been shown up, Fatah officials last week added the release of popular Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti to their list of preconditions for resuming talks with the Israelis — preconditions such as a complete settlement freeze, which the Israelis have shown no inclination to accept. That was simply one aspect of a week of bizarre p.r. for Abbas. When Israel’s hardline foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman called the Palestinian leader “the greatest obstacle to regional order” and called for his resignation, the PA filed a formal complaint to the Security Council, calling Lieberman’s statement a “clear threat on [Abbas’] life”. File under spurious. And Palestinian eyebrows were raised by Abbas’ comment in an Israeli TV interview aired at the weekend that the Arab rejection of the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan had been a “mistake”. It’s certainly true that the Palestinians were granted more land under the ’47 Partition Plan than they were left with by the 1949 Armistice lines, or as a result of the occupation that began in 1967. But Abbas had recently written in the New York Times of his family being uprooted from their home in the town of Safed and driven into exile, and of their decades of longing “to return to their home and homeland.” But the 1947 Partition Plan had put Safed in Israel.

If the Palestinian leadership appears to be scrambling, that’s because it’s suspended between the pursuit of a negotiated peace which appears more elusive than it did two decades ago, and the terra incognita of an as yet unformulated Palestinian “smart power”, combining the political, diplomatic and economic leverage available to them to press Israel to end the occupation. Abbas’ U.N. move only gets beyond symbolic gesticulation if it’s tied to a strategy of mustering the pressure that changes Israel’s cost-benefit calculations. Abbas in his U.N. speech repeatedly used the word “apartheid” in the hope of triggering a response similar to the campaign of isolation that had pressed South Africa to end its system of minority rule. But the PA also remains intimately locked into a series of administrative and security arrangements with the Israelis which they continue to uphold; the PA was always envisaged as an interim administrative body on the road to statehood, not a vehicle for struggle against occupation.

But the coherence or lack of it on the part of the Abbas’s U.N. effort doesn’t alter the U.S. dilemma: Washington clearly lacks a credible strategy for resolving a conflict that remains the key litmus test of U.S. bona fides throughout the Arab world, and its current efforts appear to be more about “looking busy” than achieving results. The self-defeating defunding of Unesco is simply a reminder that U.S. handling of the Israeli-Palestinian file is steadily eroding U.S. credibility, particularly in a region whose publics are suddenly in play and driving political change. Smart power means skillfully playing the cards you’re dealt. But sometimes, there’s only so much you can do with a dud hand.