September 6, 2011
Palestinians Making Smart Power Play in UN
Featuring Ramzy Baroud of The Palestine Chronicle
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian National Authority’s (PNA) de facto president, can pick from a wide selection of arguments. He can point to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has obstructed a sovereign Palestinian state for several decades. They can point to President Barack Obama’s vow to engage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from “day one,” and the minimal effort he has since devoted. Or Abbas could point to noted Israeli booster Dennis Ross, whom the administration sent to Jerusalem to head off the UN’s bid.
Ross isn’t scheduled to meet with Abbas directly. That job falls to David Hale, Obama’s new “Special Envoy to the Middle East,” as Ross meets with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. (Update: Ross reportedly attended the meeting with Abbas.) Both have come to pitch an “alternative” plan to the UN, including a temporary freeze of all settlement construction. One Israeli official claimed that the government is, “willing to bite the bullet on language on borders, if they can bite the bullet on issues important to us.” Yet the insensitivity of Ross’s mere presence speaks louder than any of Obama’s public statements on a two-state solution.
“Whoever wrote this thought we are so weak that we cannot even wiggle or that we are stupid,” Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, told The New York Times. “Whatever is to be offered, it is too late.”
Much like the administration and Hamas, among other actors, the U.S. media wants little to do with the story of Palestinian recognition. Hyping a UN bid for statehood as an unnecessary provocation, the Palestinians will “undermine” negotiations with Israel, create friction with the U.S. government and spark a new round of violence. These talking points are lifted from Netanyahu’s playbook, including a recent warning that Palestinian statehood would “set back peace, and might set it back for years.”
None of these arguments hold a strong connection with reality - negotiations remain frozen since Obama came to office. Although dolling out loads of cash, the U.S. government is already unfriendly to the Palestinians. Violence is a constant possibility that both sides are responsible for, and consider the provocation of an unfavorable two-state solution for the Palestinians. Netanyahu has personally set peace back since taking office in March 2009; a majority of Israelis and even the White House supposedly distrusts him, further eroding confidence in a fair negotiating process.
“We have exhausted all opportunities so we have to go to the U.N,” Abbas explained.
The Palestinians’ vote is provocative because it defies Western orders. This move doesn’t have to be so hostile if the U.S. and Israel don’t interpret it as such, but instead of advocating a game-changing alternative, the administration continues to add a few “sweeteners” to a directionless negotiating process. Neither side, Israelis included, is impressed by U.S. diplomacy and thus is unlikely to move their position. The plan to counter the Palestinians inside the UN could also blow up in embarrassing fashion.
Approving a state could throw hurdles into the negotiating process, except vetoing will generate wider damage across the international community.
The administration either fails to understand the Palestinians’ condition or ranks it far below Israel’s interests. Already nurturing an unflattering record during his short stay in office, Obama and his national security team are instilling no confidence in the possibility of an amicable resolution. On Tuesday the State Department’s Victoria Nuland was asked if the administration is, “threatening the Palestinians with withholding aid to them if they were to take such a move? Or are you just saying that it’s not in their best interest?”
“We don’t threaten,” Nuland replies. “We don’t threaten. But we are making sure that they are hearing the voices in the Congress, which are getting increasingly loud on this subject.. I think I’ve said what I’m going to say on our efforts to head off a bad scenario in September.”
Factoring in the region’s complex environment, this thinking remains a case of creating negative thoughts. And Nuland’s comment on Congress (and the Israeli lobby by association) does qualify as a threat; the Palestinians are painfully aware that Congress is staunchly pro-Israeli. White House spokesman Jay Carney was also pressed on the administration's plan A and B, and whether Obama worries that a veto would send a bad signal to other Arab revolutionaries. After reiterating that “there is no substitute for serious and substantive negotiations between the parties,” Carney responds, “I will simply say that we continue to believe that this is not the right course of action, that it’s not productive or helpful and will not bring the Palestinians any closer to statehood.”
How is it possible, though, that UN recognition won’t bring the Palestinians even an inch closer to statehood? These U.S. officials aren’t arguing that Hamas’s uncooperative position would threaten the UN’s decision, although they are certainly implying it. What the U.S. and Israeli governments truly fear is a loss of control, having grown so accustomed to total control of foreign peoples. For the first time in recent memory, the Western-backed Palestinian leadership is refusing to obey orders.
“Some Israelis complain that this is a unilateral move, but when you address 193 countries, that is not unilateral,” said Abbas. “We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years.”
If the White House was willing to listen instead of talk over the Palestinians, Abbas wouldn’t be perceived so negatively. The PNA chief hasn’t wildly deviated from common sense, saying, “Our first, second and third priority is negotiations. There is no other way to solve this. No matter what happens at the United Nations, we have to return to negotiations.” He added, “We don’t want to isolate Israel but to live with it in peace and security.
“We don’t want to delegitimize Israel. We want to legitimize ourselves.”
Seen from this angle, the UN vote is the right decision despite a number of internal and external forces. This action will move the process forward regardless of who wants it to move where. The Israelis need to be pressured to change their position, otherwise they will survive on the status quo for as long as possible. Perhaps more importantly, pressure must be applied on the White House in order to preserve any chance at favorable negotiations. Neither government moves until the Palestinians make them - only when PNA leadership tires of frozen negotiations does the Obama administration wake from a daze.
It is actually in U.S. and Israeli interests to preempt the end of their strategy before it collapses.
“We’re trying to preserve the two-state solution,” concluded Saeb Erekat, Abbas’s lead negotiator. “History will judge us.”