Thursday, September 8, 2011

Showdown at the UN and a Setback in the Middle East

According to the New York Times, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has confirmed the Palestinians' decision to appeal to the UN for unilateral statehood.  While the vote will undoubtedly fail to pass the Security Council, there is a good chance that it will pass the General Assembly, where the US does not possess a veto.

While in a practical sense the vote is meaningless - the General Assembly does not have the power to grant statehood - the decision to press for unilateral recognition will have severe negative consequences for the Israeli-Arab peace process.  Abbas's decision to proceed follows extensive pressure by Israeli, American, and other diplomats to avoid making an international scene at the UN.

The vote could serve to severely raise tensions in the region, already inflamed by the Arab Spring.  Some pundits believe that it could spark rioting and Israeli reprisals within the West Bank and Gaza.  It has already led to increased divisiveness in the world community as the US Congress has moved to cut funding to any UN organization that supports unilateral Palestinian statehood.  But worst of all, it may force Israel, already feeling isolated and abandoned, particularly by its number one ally, to retrench, granting further power to anti-peace extremists.  Ultimately, the vote will cause greater polarization between the sides and move them further away from an attainable peace accord.

Undoubtedly, the Obama administration's shoddy handling of the Middle East has contributed to this unfortunate turn of events.  Obama's insistence on Israeli preconditions for negotiations, namely an immediate freeze on building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and a bold-faced demand for a settlement based on the 1967 armistice lines, has all but terminated any common ground for negotiations.  While these terms will likely be incorporated into any final peace accord, they cannot serve as starting points for negotiations.

Obama may understand the need for these terms in any final agreement, but he has allowed his policy wonkery to get in the way of sound politics.  His vocalized demands have forced the Israelis to harden their positions, especially given the right-wing basis of the governing Likud coalition.  Likewise, such explicit preconditions have boxed-in Abbas, who can no longer come to the bargaining table deprived of these assurances (the Israelis won't be giving them) without appearing to undermine his people.

This is clearly a huge factor in precipitating Abbas's turn to the UN, a move that angers both the US and Israel.  According to the NYT:
Mr. Abbas says for direct talks to begin, Israel should carry out a short-term freeze in settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as agree that the basis of the talks would be the lines drawn in 1967.
This is shame.  The Middle East peace process has enough hindrances already and sorely does not need more.  Accordingly, any forward movement on a Palestinian state will be thwarted the moment the issue is put to a unilateral vote before the General Assembly.  Hopefully, the Palestinian leadership realizes this before it is too late.

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