- The Washington Times - Monday, July 11, 2011

The Obama administration is facing a major embarrassment at the hands of the Palestinian Authority. The “Quartet” powers - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - are seeking a way to restart direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians in order to forestall the proposal for the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestinian statehood when the international body convenes in September. The recognition would be largely symbolic; full membership in the U.N. would require a vote before the Security Council, which almost certainly would face a U.S. veto. But a vote of confidence from the General Assembly would in theory give the Palestinians increased diplomatic momentum and cap two years of failed White House peace initiatives.

The Palestinians have been rallying supporters for their proposal despite strong U.S. objections. Last week, U.S. special Mideast peace envoy David Hale and White House adviser Dennis Ross met with lead Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat to press him to give up the plan. Mr. Erekat held firm, saying opponents of the declaration need to “rethink their position.” The Palestinians are daring Mr. Obama to take stronger action against them, seemingly confident that he won’t.

It’s a sad state of affairs when America lacks the political leverage to stop such a needlessly provocative diplomatic maneuver, but it was inevitable given the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy. Mr. Obama came into office believing the problems the United States faced in the global arena were due to the arrogance of his predecessor. His view was that it’s better to be loved than feared among nations, and he acted accordingly with a series of outreach efforts, proposed “grand bargains” in various regions and a general strategy of “leading from behind.”

Sincerity can also be read as weakness, and if simple good intentions could resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, it would have been settled long ago. Instead of bringing the two parties together, the administration’s approach has alienated them from each other and from Washington. A series of missteps with Israel drove a wedge between Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Palestinians, frustrated at the lack of progress in the American diplomatic framework, figured they had nothing to lose by going outside the box.


Mr. Obama may have himself to blame for conjuring the recognition idea. “This time we should reach for what’s best within ourselves,” he said before the General Assembly in September. “If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” Direct talks collapsed within weeks, but the notion of a Palestinian state being declared at the U.N. in September 2011 persisted. The Palestinians concluded that if they could not get there by negotiating with Israel, perhaps they could rally the rest of the world to their cause.

The White House now faces a countdown to a bruising diplomatic defeat. It will take more than high-toned rhetoric to derail the recognition drive. American negotiators should make an honest, interest-based assessment of the state of play in the region, free of the misplaced idealism that has typified the Obama administration’s approach to date. The Palestinians are among the largest per-capita recipients of foreign aid in the world. If the hundreds of millions of dollars the United States provides them annually cannot buy leverage, there are plenty of other good uses for those funds.