Next week, the Palestinians will get the United Nations General Assembly to endorse their right to an independent state, and possibly to grant them non-member observer status in their global body. This proposal has become a virtual obsession in both Jerusalem and Washington. As the date approaches, the hysteria is reaching a fever pitch.
Their reactions are particularly striking in light of far graver regional issues. The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo by a group of protesters, and the declaration by Turkey that it would not only increase its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean to counter Israeli impunity, but would also escort future flotillas to Gaza, carry much graver implications for Israel than the Palestinian motion at the UN.
The Israeli response to the UN move is not rooted in a sober assessment of regional priorities. It is a kneejerk reaction against a clear statement by the vast majority of the world supporting a Palestinian state, implying that Israel is not willing to create one.
The arguments that are being put forth by Israel and her supporters don’t really hold water, either. They say that this is an effort to “delegitimize” Israel. This begs an obvious question: If support for a Palestinian state delegitimizes Israel, than what does the creation of such a state do? Is it simply that the Palestinians doing anything without Israel’s permission is delegitimizing?
It’s also said that the Palestinians are trying to get around direct negotiations with Israel and create a state through the international community. How exactly this pushes such a notion forward is unclear, especially since many of the same people were recently saying how anything that happens in the UN will have little, if any, effect on the ground.
Israel’s reaction is based on a fear that the masquerade that the Israeli government is interested in a viable Palestinian state will be exposed as a sham. Unfortunately, most of the world already knows that. The only people who still believe in the masquerade are Israelis and Americans. Nothing that happens at the UN will change their views.
However, for the Obama Administration, this is not just about supporting its Israeli ally. In Washington, congress is watching its ownership of the the peace process being eroded. The world is seeing this as an obvious weakness of American diplomacy. Again, this is widely acknowledged.
It’s one thing when Israel defies the United States. It is a sovereign nation, a regional power, a key US ally, and has a very powerful lobbying apparatus in Washington. But the Palestinian Authority, a weak and occupied pseudo-government that depends on the US not only as the single biggest supplier of cash to its beleaguered treasury, but also to intercede with Israel when it, for example, withholds the tax revenue collected for the PA. If the Palestinian Authority can thumb its nose at the White House, who needs to take US diplomacy seriously?
This is where we get to the core fear that the US and Israeli governments share. Their biggest concern is the internationalization of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israel believes that it will lose a major advantage if anyone other than the US sits between them and the Palestinians.
This concern shouldn’t be so overwhelming. It’s easy enough for countries to vote in favor of a Palestinian state in the General Assembly. However, no influential country or international body is interested on taking on the thankless task of trying to bring an end to this vexing conflict, no matter how important that ending is to securing global stability.
It’s also unclear, at best, whether the Palestinians have any kind of plan for what happens after the United Nations vote. There certainly is no indication that they have a plan. Indeed, it seems that the entire UN move was initially intended to wring some kind of concession from Israel and the US. When that was not forthcoming, the PA simply had to see it through.
Opposition to the Palestinians’ United Nations initiative is going to have long-lasting repercussions. The Palestinians’ apparent decision not to go to the Security Council is likely motivated in large part by a desire to avoid alienating the United States more than necessary by forcing it to veto a UNSC resolution. But US opposition has been clear for a long time, and it’s well-known that the Americans are working to dissuade European countries from voting in favor as well. That won’t be forgotten.
Within the US, opposition to the UN initiative is also sending some ripples around. J Street, the so-called “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group came out in support of the Obama Administration’s position on the Palestinian initiative, while also opposing any “punishment” for the PA, like cutting aid, in response.
Any position J Street would have taken would have been unpopular with some segment of its membership. It was a tough call for them, but they made the wrong one in this case. By supporting the US position, J Street showed it was following the Obama Administration’s lead, not trying to lead it in a better direction. Its calculus was political and strategic. It wasn’t about doing the right thing.
It’s not hard to discern J Street’s thinking. The organization knows that its opposition to the US position will not change it. Yet, this decision will push J Street further away from the political center of the Jewish community, which remains widely, though not entirely, opposed to the Palestinian initiative.
J Street also know that Obama sees this as an important way to win back voters and donors he thinks he has lost over Israel. J Street’s opposition would not win it many friends in the White House. But J Street also has its entire identity invested in shifting the US role toward a more constructive one. It recognizes that any move toward internationalizing the mediation of this conflict makes the liberal Jewish organization less relevant.
Tellingly, J Street has sacrificed the ethical argument, such as was advanced by Americans for Peace Now, who said that they “…will judge any resolutions on their merits. We believe that only negotiations can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, we recognize the Palestinians’ right to seek recognition at the UN. We believe their decision to do so reflects not a rejection of negotiations, but the loss of credibility of those negotiations, as well as the realization that the situation is nearing the point at which settlement in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will make the two-state solution unworkable. Moreover, we recognize that there are important positive elements in this UN effort, including the fact that it reflects a continued commitment to achieving progress through non-violent means, and the fact that it is predicated on acceptance of the two-state solution, seeking recognition of a state inside the 1967 lines, and in no way challenging Israel’s right to exist inside the Green Line.”
That’s a reflection of a sober analysis, and an ethical direction, which helps underline the valuable role that older peace organizations like APN continue to play in highlighting the failings of America’s Mideast policies. Its reasonableness also stands in stark contrast to the fearful responses of the US and Israeli governments towards the Palestinians, and how little they can be relied on to reinvigorate the peace process.
Photograph by Joel Schalit