News / Middle East

President Obama Faces Palestinian Dilemma at UN

Palestinian students hold flags as they arrive to deliver letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon through the head of the UN office in the West Bank city of Ramallah September 20, 2011, ahead of President Mahmoud Abbas' bid for statehood recognition a
Palestinian students hold flags as they arrive to deliver letters to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon through the head of the UN office in the West Bank city of Ramallah September 20, 2011, ahead of President Mahmoud Abbas' bid for statehood recognition a

The Palestinians are demanding admission as a member-state of the United Nations this week, in a diplomatic initiative that could cost them crucial financial support and damage U.S. standing in the Middle East.

With Washington vowing to block the Palestinian bid by exercising its veto power in the U.N. Security Council, politicians and regional experts here are speculating about what the Palestinians are really trying to accomplish. However the confrontation plays out, diplomats worry it could mean yet another setback for the faltering Middle East peace process.

That peace process grew out of talks that began in the decade following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and negotiations have been going on in one form or another ever since. And during those years, Israel has moved more than 500,000 of its citizens onto territory it captured from the Palestinians and their Arab allies in the conflict.

So, from the Palestinian point of view, the decades of peace feelers and formal negotiations have been a failure: They still don’t have a sovereign state of their own and the Israelis have colonized much of what used to be Palestinian lands.

That’s why many Palestinians believe the bid for admission to the United Nations as a full member state is long overdue. And it’s why Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will make that bid in a U.N. speech on Friday.

“It’s a message, really, of a lack of confidence in American management of the peace process,” said Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership.  “They are unhappy with the way things have gone and that the United States really hasn’t come up with an alternative strategy.”

All of this poses a dilemma for the United States, which supports creation of a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel, but insists this can only be possible through direct negotiations between the two parties. Only through such talks, U.S. diplomats believe, can the real trappings of a state - recognized borders, internal security, trade agreements, currency controls, etc. - be achieved.   

These convictions and Washington’s historically close friendship with Israel are the main factors behind the U.S. threat to veto the Palestinians’ U.N. membership bid.
But casting such a veto in the U.N. Security Council could be costly.

If Washington does block Palestinian U.N. membership, says Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former U.N. ambassador, it risks “losing the little credibility it has left in the Arab world.”

“American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region,” al-Faisal warned in a column published by The New York Times.

The Obama administration is well aware of the risks and has been lobbying furiously behind the scenes to short-circuit the Palestinian effort even before it comes to a vote in the Security Council.

First, Washington has been trying to convince the Palestinians they already have made their point and should return to the negotiating table with Israel.

A fall-back position would be to persuade the Palestinians to take their bid to the U.N. General Assembly, where the U.S. does not have a veto right. A positive vote there would be virtually certain, but it would give the Palestinians the status of an observer state, not the full rights enjoyed by sovereign member states.

So far, the Palestinians have rejected both options, although Palestinian President Abbas has subtly left open the possibility he might change his mind.

If, as expected, the Palestinians do forge ahead with their membership bid in the Security Council, Washington still hopes to block it without resorting to a veto. It can do that by persuading at least seven of the 15 Security Council members to either oppose the Palestinian bid or abstain in the voting.

With help from some of its European allies, the Obama administration still believes that might be possible and it is lobbying furiously behind the scenes.

The way U.S. diplomats and many members of the U.S. Congress see it, Mr. Abbas’ Palestinian Authority needs to be saved from its own misguided policy on U.N. membership.

For months, both Democratic and Republican Party members in Congress have been warning the Palestinians they stand to lose about $500 million in U.S. economic and security assistance if they force an American veto. This would trigger an economic crisis for the Palestinian Authority, which already is failing to fund basic programs because of limited donations from its Arab allies.

The Palestinian push for recognition at the United Nations also is playing into U.S. domestic politics.

President Obama’s Democratic Party already has lost what was considered a safe seat (from New York City) in Congress, largely because the Republican Party candidate portrayed the president as giving Israel less than total support. And Rick Perry of Texas, the leading Republican contender in the 2012 presidential elections, is blasting Mr. Obama as being “insulting and naive” in his treatment of Israel.

Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics, tells VOA’s Andre de Nesnera the Palestinian U.N. bid has put Mr. Obama “between a rock and a hard place.”

“President Obama faces a very strategic dilemma and obviously he has made up his mind - that is, he cannot afford the political costs of abstaining or even supporting a Palestinian bid in the United Nations,” Gerges said.

And Gerges, like Saudi Arabia’s Turki al-Faisal, says a U.S. veto, when it comes, will be devastating on the international level.

“What we need to understand is that the Arab world has changed forever,” Gerges said, referring to this year’s popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. “Public opinion has become a critical variable in Arab and Muslim politics.

“I fear that the American veto will basically fuel anti-American sentiments, will basically mobilize segments of Arab and Muslim public opinion against the United States, will complicate President Obama’s outreach efforts to Arab and Muslim public opinion and also his embrace of the Arab revolutions.”

President Obama and his diplomats, as well as Palestinian President Abbas, have a lot to think about between now and Friday.

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