By Rahul Ravi
The New York Times had a great piece this week on the Palestinian pursuit of statehood at the United Nations. Well, it had a couple on the subject, which is understandable because there is something about the Arab-Israeli conflict that riles people. Understandable because the conflict is a proxy for grander notions of justice and fairness. The story has taken such a hold in the media that an election in New York City, in a heavily Jewish district, was touted as a harbinger of things to come in 2012. Republicans won the district, so the logic follows that Jews are turning away from Obama. Add in the attention to the decline of American efficacy in the peace process and the diplomatic isolation of Israel and you have 3 stories in one edition of the Times.
However, the one thing, and arguably the most important aspect of this whole thing, is completely ignored: How will this play out for the Palestinians? Any commentary that I’ve read that touches this subject inevitably falls into the negative realm. Critics assert that the U.N. is not an appropriate venue for a peace settlement. They say that a U.N. vote won’t do anything and that only bilateral talks will ease the Palestinian people’s longing for some concrete action towards establishing their own sovereign state. Even the pro-Palestinian faction believes that the U.N. adventure is risky and that the only thing it will do is push Israel into a corner, making them less conducive to talking. The one exception being Jimmy Carter, but he cries wolf on the Palestinian question every year.
But look what has happened: the Quartet got together at an impromptu meeting at the U.N. and drafted a proposal. Will this do anything? Will it get Netanyahu and Abbas back into the room with the swinging light bulb? Probably not. But what it did do was spur the forces that be into action. It has given the breath of life into an issue that was on its deathbed about a month ago. Every great chance for peace has comes after a jolt. Operation Desert Storm was that jolt. Clinton’s defeat of Bush, Sr. was a similar jolt. Taking the Palestinian cause to the U.N. creates a similar jolt. Look at the press, look at the attention in academic circles given to this issue. The peace process hasn’t had this much attention since Arafat and Barak met at Camp David 11 years ago.
It is also important for the Palestinian psyche. They have long known that the United States will never throw Israel under the bus. Whether that is because of Mearshimer and Walt’s monolithic “Israel Lobby” or because of purported strategic considerations or even the “Special Relationship”, the fact of the matter is that US preference for Israel is well known. It’s about as secret as the Israeli nuclear arsenal. Forcing the US to show its hand in the security council with a veto of Abbas’s application would erase any residual denial that the Palestinians had of the US as an honest broker. The move to the UN shows America’s hand, it finally calls a spade a spade and effectively cements the notion that, as Aaron David Miller put 6 years ago, America is Israel’s lawyer.
However, there is no tangible way to measure the Palestinian psyche. But the UN move does something else connected with calling America out–it gives the Palestinians the opportunity to get a lawyer of their own. The United States has jealously guarded its role as ultimate arbiter of the Arab-Israeli conflict for the past 20 years. And the rest of the world sat by and let it happen because they wanted no part in it; if the superpower wants to deal with an intractable situation, then let it. For the past 20 years that has been the case. European countries may whine about Israeli military actions and the Arab states might note the Palestinian plight when its convenient for them, but neither the EU nor the Arab League has taken any concrete action. Sure the Saudis put a reasonable peace deal on the table, and the EU gives the West Bank aid, but neither have stepped in.
Now that the US will be forced to look like the roadblock to Palestinian statehood and firmly take Israel’s side on the issue, the Palestinians have to seek out their Atticus Finch. The Arab League and the EU are the best combination. The EU provides economic weight while the Arab League provides solid moral and political backing. Having two allies, the EU and US, take opposite ends of the issue while still talking to each other gives the negotiators more leverage because there is an illusion of independence. Shuttle diplomacy by one country alone gives a false air of neutrality that makes the mediator a source of suspicion.
But what about the United States? This can be good for the United States as well. Instead of being the duplicitous peace broker who simply throws money at the Palestinian Authority while throwing more money and diplomatic capital Israel’s way, Washington can be take the side that is popular at home and that it is comfortable with. Furthermore, throwing in with the Israelis is the final message that the Obama Administration can give to Netanyahu that the US is with Israel now, completely. Don’t embarrass us. Netanyahu has consistently used the administration’s attempts to be even-handed as excuses to act unilaterally or even contemptuously towards his biggest–and only–sponsor. But if the US embraces its role as Israel’s lawyer and lets the Palestinians find their own, then there will be no need to give Bibi these openings. Furthermore, by not providing the PA with peace advice, Israel should have no concerns as to what US motives are.
I know that this sounds similar to Rick Perry’s or Eric Cantor’s notion that what is good for Israel is good for the United States. But that is not what I’m advocating. Remember, lawyers only represent the will of their clients and recommend what they think is best. If the Israel doesn’t want 1967 borders with landswaps and shared Jerusalem, that is their position, not America’s. Ironically by openly taking Israel’s side Washington admonishes itself of the consequences of unpopular Israeli positions. The US could effectively say, “We said plan A was the best, but they didn’t want it. Sorry.” Cynical? Absolutely. In US interests? Of course. Israel can make itself look bad, but why should the US pay the price for that?
The key to making the Palestinian UN vote work in America’s favor is by sticking to US positions. Being Israel’s lawyer doesn’t necessitate being Palestine’s enemy. All it means is that the US doesn’t give Palestine advice on negotiations. Whatever money Israel and the US give to the PA, they should still give as aid. I know this overall plan is unrealistic and probably has no chance of happening because it requires the United States to acknowledge its diminishing role in the conflict. It also requires the EU to come up with a singular policy on their support for the Palestinian position. Its not enough that they support two states based on 1967 borders, land swaps, and shared Jerusalem. They need a unified approach and a team with a vision. This might be difficult given Europe’s recent penchant for disagreeing on even saving their own monetary union.
However, the point is that Abbas’s move provides a jolt that can be helpful for moving the peace process forward. It is not universally negative and if used correctly, the Palestinians can leverage the move into something that moves the issue towards endgame. Israel is already feeling the heat from the move in their relations with Egypt and Turkey. They may rarely care what the world thinks (as long as America supports them) but Bibi seems shaken by the almost sudden collapse of Israel’s two most prominent neighbors. But with the world focused on the green line again, there is little Netanyahu can do but make overtures to talk. After the flotilla incident and the 2009 Gaza War, Israel cannot afford to tarnish its reputation when all cameras are on them.
Abbas has effectively called the United States for what it is and Obama took the only path he could. However, this could produce a diplomatic shift that actually works in favor of peace. Lets hope so, because I’m tired of reading about this tireless conflict.