This article first appeared as an Op-Ed on Politico.com on September 19, 2011
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas early this week will likely fulfill his longstanding vow to introduce in the U.N. Security Council a resolution to recognize Palestine as the 194th member state. No one should be the least bit surprised.
For the past few years, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has worked on his declared strategy to build the institutions of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and then seek international acknowledgment. Indeed, Palestinian success in improving the economy, governance, and even security that benefits Israel, has now won widespread international support. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have declared the Palestinian Authority ready to assume the responsibility of statehood.
It is understandable, then, that most U.N. member states support the next step of gaining greater recognition at the global organization.
So why has it provoked such hyperbolic rhetoric in the U.S. and Israel? Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman whips up fear, claiming that Abbas will resort to “violence and bloodletting” the day after the vote and that future negotiations will be doomed. Congress has introduced legislation threatening to cut off all U.S. aid to the Palestinians.
One would think, reading the voluminous criticism of the PA’s gambit, that Abbas was threatening to launch a third Intifada with support from renegade Muammar Qadhafi loyalists.
In fact, a U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood is a largely symbolic gesture. It can neither change the basic dynamic of the Israel-Palestinian relationship, nor endanger prospects for a return to the direct negotiations that all sides agree is the only way to arrive at a permanent settlement.
Abbas has regularly underscored the Palestinians’ commitment to returning to talks after the vote. “No matter what happens at the United Nations,” Abbas recently told The New York Times, “we have to return to negotiations.”
Unlike a decade ago, Palestinian leaders have pledged their commitment to using non-violent means to achieve their goals. Similarly, U.S. support for direct negotiations is unquestionable — as is its commitment to Israel’s security.
“The only way of getting a lasting solution is through direct negotiations between the parties and the route to that lies in Jerusalem and Ramallah, not in New York,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday. “The issue is not simply that action in New York will not bring peace and stability,” she asserted, “but it will create more distractions toward achieving that goal.”
If by “distraction” Clinton meant that the Palestinians would feel more empowered in negotiations, that should not necessarily be viewed as a negative development, given the huge asymmetry in the clout each side brings to the table.
The Palestinian hope is that even getting a General Assembly vote on Observer status — the most likely outcome if the U.S. vetoes a Security Council resolution — will give them enhanced leverage when direct talks resume. It is difficult to see how such an outcome would actually affect Israel’s security or threaten its core interests.
It is an exaggeration to claim that having a majority of U.N. members uphold Palestine’s entry into the world body would change the essentials on the ground. Everyone recognizes the basic issues will still need to be negotiated; the U.S. will still guarantee Israel’s security, and the Palestine Liberation Organization will still have to uphold its part of previous accords signed with the Israelis — particularly on security cooperation.
Let’s be clear: the real threat of the resolution is not to Israel, but to the United States — if it follows through with its promised Security Council veto. The perception that Washington is hopelessly biased in favor of Israel has long angered those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
This public ire in the Arab and Muslim world, though, didn’t matter all that much in the era of autocrats like Hosni Mubarak — who could shape their foreign policies according to strategic interests without regard to public opinion.
The Arab Spring is changing all that. Publicly supported governments are likely to be far more attentive to the mood of the street. We saw an early indication of what is to come when the Egyptian authorities waited hours before intervening to stop the assault on the Israeli embassy.
Even longtime US friends, like Saudi Prince Turk Al Faisal and Jordan’s King Abdullah, warn that Arab tolerance of U.S. unconditional support for Israel has its limits.
Washington lost credibility in the region in February, when it trampled its longstanding opposition to Israeli settlements with the lone no vote on the draft Security Council resolution condemning their continued growth. It risks another blow with a veto of the Palestinian statehood resolution.
Now, more than ever, with the region in a delicate period of transition and with Arab liberals — many of whom are inclined to be pro-Western — competing with Islamists and Arab nationalists to shape a more democratic Arab world, the U.S. badly needs to be on the right side of history.
Washington must take care that it does not confuse support for Israel’s security with blanket defense of Israel’s policies. If the US cannot convince the Palestinians to forego the Security Council resolution, perhaps the wisest course of action would be to take a deep breath, exhale and abstain from voting.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.