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Abbas’ U.N. Gambit: a Bold Rejection of U.S. Diplomacy

Originally published on Tikkun Daily
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On Friday, after much speculation, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas officially announced that the Palestinians would seek full U.N. membership by going directly to the Security Council, setting the Palestinian Authority on a diplomatic collision course with the United States.

The Obama administration, which has vowed to veto any such efforts by the PA, has been engaged in frantic attempts to avert this move by the Palestinians. Why? Vetoing a Palestinian statehood bid at the Security Council will significantly damage one of President Obama’s main foreign policy goals: to cast the U.S. as a champion of Arab freedom and democracy in a turbulent and shifting Middle East.

This is why Washington has initiated last-minute talks with Abbas, trying to convince him to forgo the Security Council. The Obama administration understands that rejecting the Palestinians’ statehood bid on what will no doubt be a highly-dramatized world stage will do significant damage to this central foreign policy goal, and will likely further erode America’s already-shaky standing in the Middle East.

And this is precisely why Abbas is gambling with a move that is almost certain to fail. The Palestinians will force America to demonstrate to the world, once and for all, what most have known for some time – that the U.S. cannot be looked upon as the dominant brokering power in Middle East peace efforts.

According to a report from Haaretz, it was actually America’s final offer to avert a U.N. showdown which convinced Abbas and the Palestinians to directly challenge the Obama administration before the world:

A last-ditch U.S. attempt to sway the Palestinian Authority away from its planned statehood bid at the United Nations and toward resumed negotiations with Israel achieved only in convincing the Palestinians that recognition in the UN was their only possibility, a PA official said on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters in Ramallah, Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath said that a plan delivered at the last minute by U.S. envoys David Hale and Dennis Ross did not meet several Palestinian demands, thus convincing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the U.S. was not serious in trying to negotiate peace.

The offer made by the U.S. did nothing to address Israel’s illegal settlement construction or the occupation, and reportedly leaned toward legitimizing the settlements by describing them as “demographic trends since 1967.”

Shaath told Haaretz that “David Hale and Dennis Ross came with a paper that was the last straw that he [Abbas] could take. It seems that it was designed to be rejected.”

And so now, Abbas will reject American overtures before the world and force the Obama administration to either a) actualize Obama’s oft-stated desire for the Palestinians to have a state of their own, or b) damage its standing as a player in the Middle East by vetoing Palestinian statehood in the Security Council.

Abbas’ speech on Friday in Ramallah, in which he announced the Security Council gambit, made explicit that the effort was in no way meant to delegitimize Israel. In fact, Abbas was clear to note that the Palestinians are committed to a negotiated settlement with Israel, and stated that the Palestinians’ first desire, after concluding its U.N. efforts, was to return to the negotiating table with Israel and hammer out a peace settlement.

However, the upcoming showdown with the U.S. sends a clear message: the negotiating table to which the Palestinians will return must allow for additional place settings – it must make room for diplomatic players other than just the U.S. and Israel.

This move to the U.N. Security Council is about dignity. It’s about delegitimizing the occupation. It’s about delegitimizing Israel’s continued, illegal settlement construction that has whittled away much of the West Bank. And it’s about standing up to U.S. hypocrisy – a hypocrisy which has prompted the Obama administration to condemn the Palestinians’ U.N. effort as unilateral while characterizing the true unilateral affront – settlement construction – as “demographic trends.”

In all likelihood, once the U.S. vetoes Palestinian statehood in the Security Council, Abbas will shift to the General Assembly, where he will win a resounding (though largely symbolic) diplomatic victory through a non-binding resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood.

Will such a victory change anything on the ground immediately? No, and nobody expects it will. However, what will likely change is America’s standing with regard to its role as a broker of Middle East peace, a change that is long overdue.

Granted, Obama is under unwavering domestic pressure to reject all Palestinian efforts at the U.N., and is in a very difficult political position. In short, he must calculate whether the diplomatic damage caused by a Security Council veto will be trumped by the domestic political damage an abstention or even a “yes” vote would cause as 2012 and the coming election loom.

That said, bold leadership from Obama has always been required to actualize his bold, rhetorical support of Palestinian self-determination, leadership that has unfortunately been lacking.

Unless an unexpected shift occurs, the U.S. is about to consummate a dramatic diplomatic failure. The Palestinians are gambling that the U.S., given the stakes involved, just might blink in the face of possible diplomatic isolation. But even if the U.S. stays the course and vetoes the PA’s statehood bid, the Palestinians will be sending a clear message: they will no longer accept the status quo as they seek the same thing millions of others across the Middle East are demanding – freedom and self-determination.

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Two of Obama’s Major Foreign Policy Goals Are About to Collide

Originally published on Daily Kos

Next week, President Obama will travel to the UN General Assembly knowing that his administration will soon damage one of its main foreign policy goals: to cast the U.S. as a champion of Arab freedom and democracy.

Tragically, this self-inflicted wound will happen as a result of the United States voting against what nearly all pro-Arab freedom and democracy advocates support at this point: recognition of Palestine as a state in the UN.

Here’s the irony: achieving Palestinian statehood is also one of President Obama’s central foreign policy goals in the Middle East.

So here you have the tragedy and the irony all wrapped into one: the “trainwreck” Obama sees coming at the UN in September, where it will be one of only a few nations in the world willing to stand in the Palestinians’ way, will be created by a train the Obama administration is conducting.

The administration has, for some time, known that it would veto any effort by the Palestinian Authority to achieve UN member status in the Security Council, and that it would vote against any nonbinding recognition of statehood for the Palestinians in the General Assembly.

It has simultaneously known that doing so would further tarnish its legitimacy in the Middle East, which is why it has made every effort recently to try and convince Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to forgo the PA’s statehood efforts in the UN. (Faced with stalled peace talks and a shrinking territory in the West Bank, the Palestinians have refused to back down.)

Today, in a brilliant piece of reporting, Laura Rozen explained how the administration, in vowing to stand in opposition to the Palestinian’s looming statehood bid at the UN, has set itself up for diminished credibility and leverage in a region it desperately wants to wield its influence as the Arab Spring’s revolutions continue to reverberate.

Most interesting was her interview with a senior Middle East negotiator, Aaron David Miller:

“I think President Obama is torn,” veteran American Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told The Envoy Monday. He doesn’t “want to be the guy who has to oppose a Palestinian state, which is something he is very much in support of.”But if U.S. representatives are forced to veto a Palestinian state resolution at the UN Security Council next week – as they vowed to do if the measure comes before that body – “you have to wonder how much lower American credibility can get,” Miller said.

Susan Rice, in an interview today with the Christian Science Monitor, admitted two things:

1) The U.S. has done everything it can to try to stop the Palestinians, and
2) The Palestinians will push forward next week and will win overwhelming support, thus isolating America in the region on the issue.

You can see a segment of her interview here:

Rozen’s article continues with some important observations about how what is about to transpire at the UN will be looked upon by some as a global rejection of America’s diplomacy efforts vis-a-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

Observers will likely interpret the UN Palestine vote as a referendum on Obama’s diplomacy in the Middle East–and analysts are already predicting that the United States’ credibility as an honest and effective broker in the peace process will likely take another hit.”I think the Palestinians are going to get a big vote,” said Bruce Jones, who formerly worked as an adviser in the office of the UN Middle East peace special representative, in an email to The Envoy Monday. “My view is that the vote will be as much a referendum on US Middle East diplomacy as on [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and the issue [of Palestinian statehood] itself.”

Of course, none of this had to happen, for the Obama administration, with enough foresight, could have used its influence with Israel to force Netanyahu’s administration back to the negotiating table. But domestic politics being what they are in the U.S., and with the 2012 election looming, the Obama administration’s leadership on this matter was not bold enough to support the bold foreign policy goals to which it has adhered.

Today, reports surfaced that significant players in the EU will support the Palestinian statehood bid in the General Assembly.

This is principally because the Palestinians are planning on including in its statehood bid language that indicates a continued commitment to a negotiated settlement with Israel. And Palestinians have argued the the UN bid could actually help jump-start long-stalled peace talks:

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused Wednesday to back down from a bid to have the United Nations recognize Palestinian statehood, telling US officials the move did not contradict the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.Abbas told visiting US Middle East peace envoy David Hale and US presidential adviser Dennis Ross that the Palestinian approach to the UN would help “overcome the impasse (in the peace process) caused as a result of Israeli intransigence.”

The only question remaining, it seems, is whether the Palestinians will bring the matter before the Security Council, thus forcing a U.S. veto. (Something both the U.S. and the EU are trying to avoid, for Washington’s sake.)

However, here is what is clear: the Palestinians will win the world’s approval at the United Nations in a matter of days, and the United States will be among a handful on the outside looking in.

It will be painful to watch Obama damage his own foreign policy goals in the Middle East. But more painful will the further erosion of America’s legitimacy in a region convulsing under the weight of revolutions.

The is the worst possible time for a “no” vote against the Palestinians, and history may not look kindly upon what is about to transpire.

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