When President Barack Obama addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2010, he sounded hopeful that by the following year there would be “an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” Sure enough, in September 2011, the Palestinians asked the UN Security Council to recognize a state of Palestine — but Obama ordered the US delegate to veto the request. What gives?
How can he support Palestinian statehood in 2010 and reject it a year later? It’s a horrible embarrassment, to say the least, to the United States, which has historically championed the right of self-determination. The Obama administration looks particularly bad, having spent so much diplomatic energy throughout this season of Arab pro-democracy uprisings pledging to realign US interests in the Middle East with American values of freedom, justice, and dignity.
The White House’s defense is lawyerly. Obama envisioned that Palestinian statehood would come about through negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, overseen by the United States. The Palestinians circumvented this mechanism; hence Obama calls their move “unilateral” and contrary to the spirit of peace. But why should the Palestinians wait for Obama’s permission slip? Like that of any other nation, their right of self-determination is an absolute principle, not a contingency plan.
The fact is that Obama’s ballyhooed negotiations never got off the ground. Israel blocked them by refusing to halt its illegal settlement construction on Palestinian lands while the talks progressed. The Palestinians were being asked to negotiate the borders of their future state even as Israel aggressively and unilaterally redrew the boundaries in stucco and concrete. Any national leaders worth their salt would decline to join talks like that.
In practice, like its predecessors, the Obama administration has made its diplomatic initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front conditional upon Israel’s whim. Obama came into office promising to extract a settlement freeze from Israel. He knew very well that negotiations would otherwise be meaningless. Then Israel said no, its backers in Congress raised a ruckus, and Washington capitulated. Cravenly, the Obama administration not only announced that a settlement freeze was not so important after all but also joined Israel in blaming the Palestinian side for the breakdown in talks.
Now, once again, the world is on one side and the United States stands alone with Israel on the other.
Some analysts in Washington think the Obama administration isn’t all that chagrined by the UN showdown. The president’s political advisers want him to be isolated with Israel for the sake of his upcoming reelection campaign. The pro-Israel lobby is still largely successful in inverting reality: In its portrayals, instead of an occupying power exploiting its military and geostrategic advantage to grab more and more land, Israel is an innocent democracy surrounded by implacably hostile neighbors. In key battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, there are significant numbers of pro-Israel voters, both Jews and evangelical Christians, who buy this line. If Obama is crafting his Middle East policy to secure their votes, it may be cunning politics, but it’s not leadership.
Washington favors Israel so strongly that it has lost all credibility as an “honest broker” of efforts at Middle East peace. This reality is the source of much — maybe most — of the anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Without a new US policy, the anger won’t dissipate.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians will be compelled to try more “unilateral” gambits like the UN statehood bid. Settlement construction will proceed apace, along with the barriers and bypass roads that are cutting up the West Bank into bits. And prospects for peace in Israel and Palestine will recede further and further into the distance.