As if it didn’t already have its hands full with upheavals across the Arab world, hot wars in Afghanistan and Libya, and budget chaos at home, the Obama administration is facing another growing pressure: Jewish groups pushing it to aggressively block the Palestinian push for United Nations endorsement of a unilaterally declared state in September.
Whether the UN drive is just a ploy to force bigger concessions from the Jewish state or a path that Palestinian leaders believe will lead to statehood, the accelerating campaign is a major diplomatic danger for Israel — a “diplomatic-political tsunami,” as Defense Minister Ehud Barak called it last month. And the UN juggernaut poses complex challenges for a U.S. administration that risks joining Israel in international isolation.
“It’s a huge dilemma for the administration, because it could put them in the position of having to oppose a Palestinian statehood resolution supported by 200-plus states,” said Edward Walker, a former U.S. ambassador in Tel Aviv. “The way it looks now, we would be the only nation opposed. The administration better start thinking now about how it’s going to handle it.”
Critics like Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), say a distracted, confused administration isn’t doing nearly enough to avert the threat.
“The United States does have leverage — we’re training the Palestinian army, and we’re still giving them huge amounts of aid,” she said, adding that Washington must be more explicit about saying it will never support a Palestinian state created without direct negotiations — and to use all its diplomatic muscle to convince the European Union and the Middle East “Quartet” to do the same.
“The problem is, right now they don’t want to do that,” she said.
One policy change may be in the works. There have been hints of a possible new U.S. peace plan, or at least a major address by President Barack Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In Israel, press reports indicate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering a major Israeli initiative, to be unveiled during his visit to Washington next month for the AIPAC policy conference, as a way of derailing the Palestinian strategy, or at least keeping some European nations from signing on.
Rumors continue to circulate about a possible Israeli military pullout from substantial portions of the West Bank — while leaving settlements in place — or recognition of some kind of provisional Palestinian state in significantly less of the West Bank than Israel offered in the past.
But few observers expect the Palestinians to accept any such proposal — nor, for that matter, do they expect that an international community that has grown increasingly distrustful of Netanyahu will be receptive.
“At this stage, when a two-state solution is hanging by a thread, nobody is going to agree to any temporary, inadequate, less-than-a-state solution,” said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs.
Kipper argued that going the UN route is a reasonable strategy for the Palestinians.
“Being the weakest of the weak, unable to do anything unless Israel is willing to give up real estate, it’s a way to bring world attention to the issue, to show people that they’re still there,” she said.
But writing in last Friday’s Washington Post, Aaron David Miller, a longtime U.S. diplomat working on Middle East peace issues, wrote that the idea of seeking recognition at the UN “takes dumb to a new level” and predicted dire consequences.
“Yet another resolution won’t deliver Palestinians a state or even bring them closer to one,” Miller wrote. “The result will be the opposite of what the Palestinians want: forcing the United States to oppose Palestinians’ efforts, energizing Congress to restrict much-needed assistance to Palestinian institution-building, and probably prompting Israel to do very real (and dumb) things on the ground.”
Even if the Palestinians succeed in winning overwhelming General Assembly recognition of statehood based on the 1967 borders, “it would have virtually no practical significance; it wouldn’t mean that the IDF would pull out of the West Bank or that Israelis living across the Green Line would have to pack up and move,” said Martin Raffel, assistant director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and director of an inter-agency task force fighting the delegitimization of Israel.
But such a partial Palestinian victory at the UN “would have diplomatic significance,” Raffel said. “It would continue boosting Palestinian claims without benefit of negotiations. The fear is that it would undermine, not improve, the prospects for peace.”
And even a simple General Assembly vote acknowledging Palestinian statehood could prompt the Netanyahu government to take unilateral steps of its own.
Unilateral statehood declarations are nothing new for the Palestinians; Yasir Arafat did it in 1988 and threatened it in the late 1990s, with almost no impact on the position of the Palestinians.
European and U.S. policy has consistently asserted that only direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can produce the kind of state the Palestinians say they want.
But conditions are a little different this time around.
A UN report published last week concluded that the Palestinian Authority has succeeded in creating many of the preconditions for genuine statehood in areas like governance, education, health, infrastructure and human rights, but also that the Gaza-West Bank split is a major impediment.
Israel’s international standing is nearing an all-time low, and a distracted Obama administration that came to office promising quick action on the Israeli-Palestinian front but launched its diplomacy with a series of blunders has left even important allies frustrated and willing to look at other solutions — including the UN route.
Adding to the impetus for the Palestinians: the upheavals of the “Arab Spring.” Protesters who risked their lives — and sometimes lost them — fighting dictatorships in Egypt, Syria and Libya, among others, have prompted more to ask the question: why not change for the Palestinians?
That same regional wave of change has imparted a new sense of urgency to Palestinian leaders. “Confusion and turbulence in their world has persuaded them they will have no reliable Arab support for a negotiated settlement,” Miller, now a scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The Jewish Week.
“[Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak is gone; the Jordanians are under tremendous stress and pressure. The Palestinians are not going to get now what they might have gotten in another universe — at least some Arab support for flexibility at the negotiating table.”
That turbulence “will only validate the notion the Palestinians have to seek refuge in the one area where they actually have support, and where that support has been reliable: the UN,” he said.
But in the end that support “is not particularly relevant because it ignores the interests of the two parties that can turn virtual Palestinian statehood into real statehood: Washington and Jerusalem,” Miller said.
That leaves the Obama administration with a big policy problem: how to thwart a Palestinian strategy that is gaining support from critical U.S. allies but which most analysts here believe can only make the situation worse — and how to do it with an Israeli partner who is unwilling or politically unable to offer new concessions to lure the Palestinians back to the peace table.
Miller said that one option the administration may be considering is a dramatic speech by Obama or Clinton laying out U.S. positions on a settlement and possibly offering bridging proposals as a way of “parking” the problem until conditions are more favorable.
“They may see that the best strategy now is to try to cordon off this problem — just as President [George W.] Bush gave his ‘Palestinian statehood’ speech in 2002, which was an attempt to ‘park’ the Israeli-Palestinian issue until the Iraq war was over. When you don’t have a policy, the pressure goes up to give a speech,” Miller said.
Jewish leaders generally want more from the administration as the September target for UN action nears.
“The U.S. is absolutely critical to the equation,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Our belief is that Washington needs to persuade the Palestinian Authority that we will do everything we possibly can on the diplomatic front to convey our opposition to this unilateral approach. Ramallah has to grasp the essential point that there is total determination in Washington to oppose this move.”
Pressure needs to be intensified both on the PA and on the European Union nations that have signaled support for the Palestinian move, or at least a willingness to consider it, he said.
“The key goal has to be to ensure that all 27 nations of the EU say yes to a two-state solution but no to a path that avoids direct talks and ultimately leads to a dead end,” Harris said.
Is the administration doing enough?
“It’s beginning to,” Harris told The Jewish Week. “But at the moment this administration is grappling with so many high-priority issues that September may seem like a long way off.”
Netanyahu can help when he comes to Washington in May for the AIPAC policy conference.
“The more the prime minister can offer, in terms of vision and methodology, the more the Americans and Europeans have to work with,” Harris said.