Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bibi: Let US Help You

This September, the UN will likely vote on a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state. The resolution would not make it to the floor of the General Assembly however, unless it passed in the Security Council. President Obama implied strongly in his speech to AIPAC last Saturday that the United States would veto the Security Council resolution as one of its five permanent members. For obvious reasons, Israel opposes the bid.

For other obvious reasons, the veto will generate significant animosity from the Arab world and the international community. The credibility of America's commitment to the new Arab world will be called into question. While the US will be saying it supports freedom and empowerment, it will be voting against those same values for Palestinians. A failed bid may also be a perfect spark for a Palestinian version of the mass protests seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and elsewhere in the region. If the situation escalates this far, it will be nearly impossible for Israel to take action without being condemned, driving public opinion against the state, constraining it politically, and undermining the credibility of the Netanyahu government.

The Obama administration is likely aware of the tight balancing act it needs to play to mitigate the damage of vetoing a statehood bid. Because President Obama has been a the G-8 in France all week, however, administration rhetoric has been focused elsewhere.

For its part, the Israeli government appears to be oblivious.

The paranoia of the Netanyahu administration to secure a veto to which the US is already 99% committed entirely misses the point. Regardless of whether a bid for statehood passes or not, there will not be a Palestinian state on the ground. A similar bid for Palestinian statehood passed with the support of 104 countries in 1988. Today, as in 1988, the Palestinian Authority lacks the legitimacy, the infrastructure, and the international support to successfully govern a state.

Furthermore, the idea that a unilateral declaration of statehood will lead to indefensible borders, an attack from Jordan (which has a peace agreement with Israel since 1994) and the annihilation of the Jewish state is a farce. But it is a farce which continues to be propagated by the Israeli government, and yes, by many of the speakers at the AIPAC conference this past weekend.

The true threat of a bid for Palestinian statehood is that the US veto may set off mass protests. If the protests are a violent third intifada, Israel will have US support but will lack support from the international community. It's status as a pariah state will be reinforced and its political leverage will again be severely constrained.

The secret weapon of the Palestinians, however, would be non-violent protests. In addition to isolation from the international community, non-violent protests would put a serious strain on the US-Israel relationship. The United States would be ill advised to condemn or otherwise stand against non-violent Palestinian protests because such statements could significantly set back US engagement with the Arab world. And while violent resistance would unfortunately garner considerable support from the Arab street, non-violent resistance would gain even more support. Yet the Obama administration would also face significant pressure, especially in an election season, to stand with Israel. The situation would be a catch-22, and far from ideal for the US or Israel to say the least.

While this scenario is highly undesirable, it is also preventable. And given the current turmoil in the Middle East, Israel has no excuse for not proactively addressing what precious little in can anticipate. It must be the strategic priority of the Israeli government, and those who support it, to mitigate the inevitable damage which will occur following a US veto of a Palestinian statehood bid. Most importantly, this means that Prime Minister Netanyahu will need to give the US political space to demonstrate that it supports a Palestinian state. In the current political environment, a statement from the US that "we support Palestinian statehood but oppose unilateral actions" is meaningless given the lack of progress towards a solution, and what Palestinians perceive to be blatant pro-Israel pandering during the Prime Minister's visit last week. If the US can offer an alternative to a UN bid, however, damage can be brought down to acceptable levels, and there is a chance for all parties to weather the storm.

Picking fights with the Obama administration over the 1967 border issue may be a good way for the current administration in Israel to solidify its coalition and get votes. But doing so hurts the ability of the United States to advance its influence and interests in the Middle East on behalf of Israel. The Netanyahu administration may be trying to shoot down the bid for Palestinian statehood. But by constraining US foreign policy options, it's really just shooting itself in the foot.

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