The overarching concern in the Middle East is a resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. All the machinations at the United Nations this week should be assessed from that perspective alone: Would declaring Palestinian statehood through the UN Security Council advance the peace process? Would giving the Palestinian Authority observer status in the General Assembly help to achieve that goal?
The answer on both counts is no. So while the United States and President Obama have every reason to feel let down by both Israeli intransigence and by a Palestinian strategy that bypasses the American role as broker of peace talks, the administration should use its power to resist both outcomes. The current peace process remains the best hope for a mutually acceptable agreement.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians has such enormous security implications for so many others - from the United States to Europe to the Arab world - that a resumption of talks is worth pursuing even when the parties themselves waver in their commitment.
There are significant barriers to peace on the Palestinian side, stemming from the largely uncontrolled violence of extremists and the provocations of the Hamas-led government in Gaza. They are responsible for most of Israel’s concerns. Can any agreement bring about true security? If not, many in Israel ask, why make concessions that would only weaken Israel’s position? But Israel still has much to gain from an agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction would then be strengthened as a moderate alternative to Hamas and who could be enlisted to help fight terrorism.
In his speech before the General Assembly yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue. He insists he wants an agreement, but his actions sometimes push in a different direction. Taking meaningful steps toward peace would reduce global pressure on Israel and help to mute the anti-Israel rhetoric from emerging political movements in Egypt and other Arab countries. But despite longstanding entreaties from the Obama administration, Netanyahu refused to suspend the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank as precursor to renewed peace talks. It was a reasonable request, given that the Palestinian Authority would, in return, suspend its bid for UN recognition. Halting settlement-building during the talks makes sense because every additional Israeli settler on land slated to be returned to Palestinians presents a new obstacle to peace.
Netanyahu obviously doesn’t see it that way. He leads a coalition that relies on far-right parties. The main rival to his Likud Party, the Kadima Party of Tzipi Livni, has signaled its willingness to join a more moderate coalition under Netanyahu’s leadership. But Netanyahu resists. He and his right-wing coalition partners seem to believe that Israel can withstand the enmity of its neighbors as long as it retains the ironclad security guarantee of the United States. To that end, Netanyahu has gone beyond Obama to cultivate the allegiance of American conservatives in Congress. He may have succeeded both in obliging Obama to restate his support for Israel, an act that undermined the president’s efforts to reach out to Arabs, and in making the backing of Israel a staple of the modern GOP.
But those successes had the obvious effect of making Abbas’s Palestinian Authority less trustful of the American role as broker of peace talks. Instead, the Palestinian Authority seeks UN Security Council recognition - which it can’t achieve - and observer status in the UN General Assembly, which it probably can.
As an observer in the General Assembly it could present its grievances against Israel before various UN bodies including the International Court of Justice at The Hague. Handing the most intractable and volatile political crisis in the world to fledgling international institutions will have the predictable effect of undermining those institutions while doing nothing to further the peace process. Any Palestinian victories would be Pyrrhic, because they’d push Israel farther from the bargaining table.
The consequences for the United States are serious. American security is enhanced by its ability to deal effectively, and from a position of strength, in aiding the emergence of democracy in the Middle East. That’s the promise of the Arab Spring - better relations between the United States and the Arab world, and a far more secure future for Israel. Allowing a future in which Israel and the United States resist Palestinian ambitions while their relations with other Middle Eastern powers deteriorate would be disastrous.
Obama should continue to do all he can to keep the peace process out of the United Nations and in the hands of those who have the greatest stake - Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They may be closer than they think to a framework for negotiations. Hopefully, Netanyahu’s reassertion of his core commitment, and the pressure engendered by Abbas’ appeal to the Security Council, will serve to jump-start a process that is deeply trying for all concerned.