Two Presidents, One Problem

Americans preoccupied by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict live in the twilight zone. In recent weeks, this feeling has held unusual power. Take, for example, the embarrassing incident where US President Barack Obama exchanged unkind words about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Reuters reports:

“I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar,” Sarkozy told Obama, unaware that the microphones in their meeting room had been switched on, enabling reporters in a separate location to listen in to a simultaneous translation.

“You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you,” Obama replied, according to the French interpreter.

You’d think a leader of a small country like Israel, even if it is a regional superpower, would be concerned that the Presidents of the US and France held him in such contempt. But no, Reuters continues:

“Obama’s apparent failure to defend Netanyahu is likely to be leapt on by his Republican foes, who are looking to unseat him in next year’s presidential election and have portrayed him as hostile to Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region.

Pushing Netanyahu risks alienating Israel’s strong base of support among the U.S. public and in Congress.”

No, it’s not the Israeli leader that needs to be concerned that the President of the United States considers him a constant annoyance. It’s the President that has to be concerned about offending the Israeli Prime Minister.

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. It’s not just the odd interpersonal alignment. The question raised is a simple one. What is more important in Washington: the interests of the United States or the tactical desires of the Netanyahu government?

The answer should be obvious. But the obvious answer is contradicted with increasing frequency.

As October drew to a close, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted overwhelmingly to admit the non-existent state of Palestine into its number. The practical effects of this vote are minimal. It in no way confers statehood on Palestine. The vote merely grants the Palestinians limited access to some international systems.

One wouldn’t know that from the hysterical response to it in Israel. Israelis would have thought the Palestinians had launched a full-scale invasion of Israel (with what army?)

But if that reaction was hysterical, the American one was pure insanity. Viewed correctly on Capitol Hill as part of the overall Palestinian effort to gain recognition of its statehood from the United Nations, the response to the UNESCO vote was swift and uncompromising.

An old law from the early 1990s dictates that any UN organization which admits Palestine as a member would lose all US participation and funding. The law has no presidential waiver option, as such laws usually do, so there was no out. But there was also no effort to re-examine if this law, first enacted by George H.W. Bush to prevent Yasir Arafat from doing just what the Palestinians are doing today, still made sense.

When Arafat was trying to gain UN membership, there was no relationship between the US and the Palestinians; indeed, the Palestine Liberation Organization was still on the US list of recognized terrorist organizations at the time.

Things have obviously changed today. The Palestinian Authority, in many ways virtually indistinguishable from the PLO, gets funding from the US and PLO leaders Arafat and, later, Mahmoud Abbas have been received with honor at the White House by three successive Presidents.

Yet there was no consideration whatsoever of whether the US should rescind or modify this law. Instead, the State Department convened a meeting of representatives of some of the biggest US corporations and international business interests including Apple, Google, Microsoft, PhRMA (a trade group representing pharmaceutical research and biopharmaceutical companies) and the US Chamber of Commerce, to try to mollify their concerns at losing access to an international organization that provides a lot of help to them in opening new overseas markets and assistance in resolving international copyright issues.

So the State Department is willing to engage with American corporations and explain to them why their interests must be sacrificed in favor of Israel’s? For me, this produces a cognitive dissonance that could convince me that I live in a mirror universe.

Of course, Google, Apple, Microsoft, et al will survive just fine, and in a more limited way, so will UNESCO. But this will cause a problem for them. The fact is that Palestine’s admittance to UNESCO is a symbolic victory in a longer quest to achieve the goal of an independent state—a goal that is supposed to be supported by US policy, and that even Netanyahu has paid lip service to.

Abbas’ statehood bid was political theater. If he was really serious about achieving gains at the UN, the Palestian Authority President would have avoided the Security Council, where defeat was an absolute certainty, and pursued recognition, albeit non-binding, from the General Assembly. Even the UNESCO victory was minor. According to official statements, the Palestinians will not be pursuing membership in any other UN organization.

Yet on Capitol Hill, Israel had to send some of its most powerful advocates to hearings to stop Congress from cutting off funds to the PA. That would have caused its collapse and forced Israel to take full charge for security and administration in the West Bank in the absence of its Palestinian sub-contractors.

Just consider the words of Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, on the matter of cutting aid to the Palestinians, in this exchange with The Cable:

“Graham also said that Congress is poised to cut off U.S. funding for the PA, which totaled $550 million in fiscal 2011, despite the fact that he still thinks financial support for the Palestinian Authority is a good idea.

“I don’t think that’s in our near-term or long-term interest, but that’s what’s going to happen, that’s where this thing is headed,” Graham said.

But isn’t the United States just spiting itself by withdrawing from organizations in order to punish them for recognizing the Palestinians?

“Not really,” Graham replied. “The world has to make a decision…. If the U.N. is going to be a body that buys into Palestinian statehood … then they suffer. It’s a decision they make.”

Graham is seen as the most important GOP lawmaker in the fight to maintain foreign aid and U.S. involvement in international organizations, because of his subcommittee position and his genuine support for such issues. But when it comes to the issue of Palestinian recognition, the politics just don’t allow any room for compromise, he said.

I’ve often criticized the view that the Israel Lobby (ironically named, as it does an enormous amount of harm to Israel and to Jews everywhere) controls US foreign policy. I stand by that. But, there is no doubt that it has an unhealthy influence on foreign policy. When these foolhardy policies blow up in American faces (perhaps literally,) it will be incidents like these that give anti-Semites the fodder they need to blame the Jews, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of us want to promote peace and a two state solution. Unfortunately, the needs of Israel’s Likud leadership take precedence over ours.

Photograph courtesy of Choudoudou. Published under a Creative Commons license.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.