Stating the Obvious — 26 September 2011

The Palestinians, as the saying goes, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

This time, however, they seem to have made their own opportunity to come up empty-handed.  The misguided attempt to circumvent the negotiating process with Israel by having the UN Security Council grant them statehood is doomed to failure.

As it stands now, the Palestinians are having trouble rounding up the nine votes they need to get their measure approved in the Security Council, and if they did, the United States would surely veto it.  If that happens, everybody involved – the Palestinians, their leader Mahmood Abbas, the United States, President Obama, and Israel – will be damaged.

But even before getting to that point, someone ought to point out to Abbas that the Security Council does not have the ability to confer statehood.  As is thoroughly discussed by David Rivkin and Lee Casey, ex-Justice Department officials, statehood and recognition is a matter between sovereigns, which the UN is not.  Moreover, Palestine does not have all the qualifications of a state, given that its territory – one of the fundamental attributes of a state – is not under its sovereign control but is subject to Israeli jurisdiction.

It goes further – in the 1995 Interim Agreement, the Palestinians and Israelis agreed that  “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.”  The Palestinians thus intend to abrogate the one agreement they have signed with the Israelis.  From the Israeli standpoint, this does not encourage further negotiation.

The Palestinians may feel that success at the Security Council is not necessary, as their backup plan apparently is to appeal to the broader General Assembly to grant them semi-official status.  This body being the same one that put paragons like Libya and Zimbabwe on the Commission on Human Rights, which in turn ignores true despots and devotes most of its energy to condemnations of Israeli actions, there is a real possibility of this modest success.  That would give the Palestinians standing to haul Israel before the Court of International Justice – in other words, to wage legal war against them.

The Obama administration has been dead set against this effort ever since it started taking shape.  The Palestinians have defied them.   This goes to show how scant the dividends have been from President Obama’s campaign to recast America’s role in the Middle East.

From the outset of his presidency, Obama has taken a harder line toward Israel than any of his predecessors.  Obama raised the issue of settlements to the level where it became a precondition to negotiations, and in doing so raised the intransigence of the Palestinians.  The Israelis complied with a temporary freeze, which yielded them nothing.  When Israel started expanding an existing set of housing within a part of Jerusalem that had been Jewish for centuries, Obama found that cause enough to put Prime Minister Netanyahu in the penalty box, refusing him even the courtesy of a joint press conference after a visit shortly thereafter.

In addition to increasing the pressure on Israel, Obama has tried to persuade the Arab world that America is a better friend now that we have rid ourselves of that dangerous cowboy Bush.  His famous Cairo speech, and his reactions to the revolutions of the Arab Spring were meant to put the US on the side of the Arab peoples.  But the Arabs have seen the unevenness of his positions – his reluctance to move against Gaddafi, his apparent tolerance of the depredations of Bashir Assad or Mahmoud Ahmedinijad against their own peoples, even the late move to favor the Egyptian protesters – all show an American who hesitates, who is weak, who does not back up his words with actions.

Couple that with the obvious global implications of an America in economic distress, and the result is that the US has lost influence in the Middle East despite the new policy.  A recent poll by the Arab American Institute shows that the Arab world views President Obama less favorably than they did George W. Bush in his last year in office.

From Israel’s point of view, the world has become a decidedly more dangerous place.  Its one major Arab ally, Egypt, has fallen into the hands of an unreliable government with unnerving Islamist leanings.  Turkey, another Muslim ally and Israel’s third largest trading partner,  has within recent months turned adversarial, expelling Israel’s ambassador and suspending military ties.  Hezbollah continues to amass rockets and other armaments in southern Lebanon under the unseeing eyes of the United Nations peacekeepers, and in direct defiance of the cease-fire that ended the 2008 war. Iran continues its nuclear development undeterred by any hand-flapping by Western nations. And worst of all, the United States has become an uncertain friend.

And now the Palestinians try an end-run around a process that they have been dodging themselves for decades.  In all the long history of negotiations over the territory that used to be the British Mandate of Palestine, the concessions have all been made by the Israelis.  They gave up the Sinai; they uprooted families and shuttered settlements in Gaza; they withdrew their armies from the security zone in the south of Lebanon.  Each move brought them less security, not more (although, granted, the peace treaty with Egypt lasted as long as Mubarak did).  The Palestinians have yet to agree even to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, and continue to name city squares after terrorist murderers and to teach anti-Semitism in their schools.

The Palestinians will fail in the Security Council, that much is sure.  If Abbas comes home empty-handed, the accolades he has enjoyed this week may turn sour.  His people do not deserve to have their hopes manipulated and ultimately dashed.  They deserve a leadership that seeks a land at peace, so they can spend less time rehearsing grievances and plotting revenge, and more time building prosperity.

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