Leaving America Behind

In 1947, the fledgling United Nations endorsed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Since then Israel’s relationship with the UN has become more and more contentious.  Last week, the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians over Mahmoud Abbas’ bid for United Nations membership added a new chapter to that relationship. But what it means remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: US President Barack Obama has now squandered the last of the goodwill he received at the beginning of his term of office, when it was hoped his administration would usher in a new era in American policy towards the Middle East. One might have thought that, following George W. Bush, the new US leader would never look that bad. Unfortunately, he does.

Obama’s speech at the UN was so lopsided that the ultra-right wing Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said he could “sign on to that speech with both hands.” Obama’s conspicuous omission of any mention of occupation or settlements was bad enough. But the line that will certainly reverberate the loudest in the Arab world was the one that sounded like it could have been written by a publicist for the Israeli government:

“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel’s citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses. Israel’s children come of age knowing that throughout the region, other children are taught to hate them. Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map. The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that six million people were killed simply because of who they were.”

That is a classic justification for occupation and other Israeli excesses, complete with a token Holocaust reference. One would think it was Israel under Palestinian occupation rather than the other way around. The US President knows better than to speak this way.

By indulging such rhetoric, the American president shamelessly panders to the far right in the Jewish and the Christian Zionist communities. It is more befitting of a radical Republican, than a liberal Democrat to speak this way. Though Obama may be speaking this way to mollify US voters, he has dangerously eroded America’s standing in the Middle East. As Israeli columnist Larry Derfner stated, “Until now, the U.S. held sway with the Palestinians; it doesn’t anymore. It held sway with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey; I wonder how much it has left now. “

As I pointed out recently, as well, the Palestinians have also shown that Washington is a paper tiger, as Mahmoud Abbas went to the UN over White House objections, and made everyone realize that threats to US aid to the Palestinian Authority are empty ones, since such action would hurt Israel far more than it would the Palestinians. With less leverage than it has had in the past, the United States is watching its influence throughout the Middle East, and its control of the late, unlamented “peace process” evaporate.

We might have seen something of a hint of a shift away from US leadership on September 27th, in the responses to Israel’s announcement that it was going to build 1,100 new housing units in the East Jerusalem settlement of Gilo.

The United States gave its stock response, calling the decision “counterproductive,” while also insisting that this has no bearing on Obama’s demand that the Palestinians return to the negotiating table. That would be for talks, we need to remember, mediated by the world’s leading superpower whose President just told the UN about the “unshakeable bond” between the US and Israel, enumerating all the reasons that allowances must be made, not for both parties, but only for Israel.

The European Union usually offers slightly stronger language that essentially says the same thing. This time, though, the EU’s foreign policy leader, Catherine Ashton, actually said that the Israeli decision “should be reversed… (as it) threatens the viability of an agreed two-state solution.”  The call for Israeli action stands in stark contrast to US statements and to EU responses of recent years.

Is this another sign that American hold on the Israel-Palestine conflict is slipping? It very well could be. However, it depends on Palestinian action from here. Unfortunately, the decision to go to the UN Security Council with a statehood bid is not what it seems.

As all commentators understood before the UN meeting last week, there is no possibility that a recommendation supporting the Palestinian bid will come out of the Security Council. The US will veto any such resolution. All its efforts have been poured into averting the veto by pressuring other Security Council member states to vote against it.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas knew this too. He also knew very well that what Israel most feared was a General Assembly vote to enhance Palestine’s status, potentially enabling it, despite its lack of sovereignty, to bring cases to the International Criminal Court and to join certain UN agencies.

Yet Abbas eschewed that option. It seems likely, in fact, that this was a way for Abbas to cave in to American and Israeli pressure without appearing to do so in front of the Palestinian public. And this represents the real crossroads the Palestinians are facing now.

The inescapable conclusion of nearly two decades of US-brokered talks is that the imbalance of power between the occupied Palestinians and Israel is magnified enormously by America being the broker, on one hand, and Israel’s agent on the other. Under these conditions, no peace is possible. Only a process driven by a body not politically handcuffed by a so-called “pro-Israel” lobby (a lobby which pursues only right-wing interests, not those of Israelis, Palestinians or the US) has any hope of success.

The realization in Palestine, as well as in the rest of the Mideast, that the Obama Administration will be no better than its predecessors, and may even be the worst yet, can start the Palestinians on the road to a new negotiating strategy. One that would, ideally, pursue international consensus for a two-state solution, rather than obstructing it, as the US and Israel have been doing for a long time.

This means that Mahmoud Abbas has to find the courage to abandon the US, forego its support and chart a new course. That could spell the end of the Palestinian Authority as it exists today, a body which largely acts as a sub-contractor for Israel’s occupation. It very likely will also mean the end of the privileged position the Ramallah pseudo-government holds now.

Is there sufficient courage in Palestine to make such a sacrifice, or, alternatively, to find the political will to usher in a new Palestinian leadership? If the answer is yes, then hope, for both Israelis and Palestinians, is still alive.

Photograph by Jennifer Crakow

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