If the Palestinian application for United Nations full membership actually takes place Friday and the United States uses its Security Council veto to stop the process, it will be the final step in a predictable and preventable tragedy playing out. Some are arguing that Washington might actually abstain, thereby gaining considerable favorable sentiment from much of the world and also sending a signal to Israel that there are limits to the bilateral relationship. But it is far more likely that President Barack Obama, who has stated over and over that he will protect Israel in international forums, will not flinch when he calls on Susan Rice to cast the fatal vote. Any expectation that the president might hesitate either because it is the right thing to do or because it benefits the United States is fanciful, particularly with a presidential election looming in 2012.
Washington’s attempts to “mediate” the situation have really been limited to pressuring the Palestinians to back off. Sending National Security Council official Dennis Ross, “Israel’s lawyer,” to Ramallah to talk around the Palestinian leadership should, if anything, indicate to the Palestinians that Washington is, as it always has been, firmly in the Israeli corner. So let us assume that Palestine will feel compelled to seek full U.N. membership as the world’s 194th nation and that Washington will then veto the application. The first question then has to be whether the entire process had any meaning at all or it was just kabuki, a stylized show played out to an appreciative audience with a predictable ending. The short answer is that the Palestinians will certainly be on the losing end — as they have been for more than 60 years — but the real losers will be the United States and Israel.
The mainstream media has echoed Israeli and American arguments that Palestinian statehood is meaningless without a negotiated settlement of issues on the ground. But Israel has made it clear that it has no desire to negotiate anything while it continues to occupy the West Bank, so the Palestinian choice is to accept the status quo, in which it is powerless and voiceless, or attempt to line up the international community more solidly behind it and shift the playing field.
Israel has been working hard to stop the process, or, at worst, to mitigate its impact by having a number of important nations, mostly in Europe, either abstain on the vote or vote no. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a glad-hand tour of European capitals earlier this year with that express purpose, and he received positive signals from the Italians, the Dutch, the Poles, and the Germans, though it is by no means clear how they will vote. It was for Israel a top national priority, which it has conveyed clearly to its friends in the United States.
Washington, at the urging of Israel, also joined in the effort, starting with warnings late last year to Latin American nations that recognizing Palestine as a state would be “unacceptable.” More recently, the State Department and the White House have repeatedly expressed their desire that the Palestinians shelve their plans to seek a U.N. seat, and they have been assiduously working both in front of the TV cameras in New York and Washington and behind the scenes to convince the Palestinian leadership to cease and desist. The dialogue has been given some teeth by Congress, which is determined to cut all aid to Palestine if the U.N. action goes through. One congressmen, Joe Walsh of Illinois, is preparing a motion that will provide congressional support for an Israeli annexation of much of the West Bank if the Palestinians proceed. Walsh describes Palestinian statehood as “absolutely outrageous.”
So Israel sees the Palestinian plan as a major threat and the United States appears to be on board, but many would reasonably observe that Israel often cries wolf and greatly exaggerates what it perceives as threats against it. Is that true in this case, making it just another instance where Tel Aviv is adopting an extreme position in hopes that Washington will deliver the goods? It may not be. Israel sees danger precisely because the Palestinian bid will do a couple of things that call into question some significant aspects of the status quo. First of all, since it will certainly pass with a huge majority in the General Assembly if the Palestinians opt to go that route, it will provide overwhelming international confirmation of Palestinian rights with the U.S. and Israel standing on the wrong side on the issue. It will also severely undermine Israel’s moral position, such as it is, and emphasize the illegality of the Israeli occupation of parts of the West Bank. The process is already illegal in the eyes of the rest of the world, including the United States, but it will be even less tenable if a convincing majority of the world’s countries recognize Palestine as a state with defined borders and a national identity.
Second, recognition of statehood carries with it recognition that the state exists within defined space, in this case the 1967 borders. This has enormous significance because those borders include many areas being colonized by the Israelis, as well as East Jerusalem. It means that any Israeli settlement that is on the other side of that border is considered completely illegal and that Israel is therefore a rogue state that is occupying and settling lands belonging to a neighboring state 44 years after the cessation of hostilities. Even the New York Times in an article on Sept. 10 regarding the recent unrest in Egypt, noting that Islamic groups were not involved, conceded that criticism of Israel has a basis in the widespread popular perception that “Muslims, Arabs, and indeed many around the globe believe Israel is unjustly occupying Palestinian territories, and they are furious at Israel for it.” The rejection of Palestinian statehood and the debate surrounding it will only heighten that sentiment.
If the Palestinians are in the United Nations as a full member or even with limited rights, they will have access to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where they can take legal steps against Israel and against individual Israelis. Even though Israel doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the court, when it reaches the point where no senior Israeli government official, present or retired, can travel without concern over being arrested, it will have a major impact on how Israel sees itself and how the rest of the world sees Israel. The clear depiction of Israel as an occupying power in violation of the Geneva Conventions, to which most of the world’s nations are signatories, would also fuel the Israel divestment campaign, which is another major concern of the Israeli government, and also legitimately so, as it could have a serious impact on the Israeli economy.
The Palestinians would also have recourse to other United Nations bodies. They would, for example, be able to appeal to UNESCO to stop the Israeli demolition of Muslim and Arab historical sites and the renaming of villages and other landmarks, a considerable benefit.
So Israel is right in understanding that the U.N. entry could have a profound impact, but the United States would hardly escape collateral damage from its veto and could turn out to be the biggest loser. Policymakers in Washington like Joe Walsh forget Newton’s Third Law of Motion, though that assumes that they have ever heard of Newton. Newton said that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. It is true in international relations just as it is true in physics, only in the real world it has come to be known as blowback.
What would be the possible blowback from an American veto? John Whitbeck has correctly described the veto by Washington as a “shotgun blast in both of its own feet.” The United States is already perceived negatively in every Arab nation except Kuwait. It is seen as on one hand supporting liberalization and democratization of some Arab governments while at the same time suppressing fundamental rights in places like Palestine. Worse still, if Washington cuts aid to the Palestinians because of their going to the U.N., it will be widely perceived as a de facto partner and enabler of the occupation of the West Bank.
The unfortunately well-deserved perception of blatant hypocrisy will alienate emerging “Arab spring” regimes even more from Washington and will almost certainly lead to anti-American violence, possibly extreme, in places like Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkey. American goods and services will, as a consequence, undoubtedly become less welcome in many parts of the world, while the U.S. veto will inevitably provide a recruiting bonanza for groups that use terror, including al-Qaeda.
And it could make every American traveler less safe when he or she goes abroad, while American soldiers stationed in foreign lands will inevitably become targets of militants, inspired by yet another example of Washington’s hypocrisy. Vice President Joe Biden and Gen. David Petraeus had it exactly right when they observed that Israeli policies were endangering Americans. That was before they came to their senses and recanted, but apparently the president of the United States was not listening anyway.
Acceptance of full Palestinian sovereignty and statehood by Israel and the United States would give Tel Aviv a genuine negotiating partner and go far toward restoring the reputation of the United States of America, while rejection of it will end the charade forever, eliminating any chance for any kind of viable peace process in the Middle East. And the damage extends beyond that. Saudi Arabia has already warned that the U.S. veto will do irreparable damage to its bilateral relationship with Washington and will also forever destroy America’s reputation in the Arab world. It would hasten the development of the clash of civilizations, “us and them” point of view, dividing much of the developing world from Washington. It would be the final and irrevocable step in a foreign policy that has brought nothing but disasters over the past 10 years.