U.S. diplomats are in a state of panic over the upcoming United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood. According to the Palestinians, they are simply doing what the White House suggested.
In his Sept. 23, 2010, speech before the U.N. General Assembly, President Obama waxed eloquent about the goals of the direct Mideast peace talks being held under American auspices. He said he hoped that "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." The talks soon broke down, but the proposed timeline remained. The idea of asking the U.N. to upgrade the status of the Palestinian Authority from nonvoting "observer entity" to "observer state" was discussed at an Arab League meeting in Libya in October and soon dominated Palestinian strategic thinking.
Unfortunately for the verbose Mr. Obama, words have consequences. What reads well off the teleprompter doesn't necessarily make good policy. He was conjuring a wistful image of a successful peace process in which he would preside over a historic signing ceremony. He would achieve what previous presidents had not and finally justify the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded as "a down payment." The mortgage on that prize has long since slipped under water. Instead of hosting a stately ritual affirming the administration's foreign-policy expertise, American diplomats are scurrying about attempting to limit the damage from the coming train wreck.
Palestinians have nothing to lose. More than 140 countries have some form of diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, and 105 grant it full recognition. The prospective U.N. declaration carries no commitments and doesn't force them to assume any special obligations. It would increase their international legitimacy more than at any time since 1974, when the Palestine Liberation Organization, then an avowed terrorist group, was granted U.N. observer status.
Palestinians have to face the threat of losing foreign aid, which is significant because they receive more aid per capita than anyone in the world. The United States alone donates more than $500 million annually, which should give Washington some leverage. But such threats are only effective when they are credible, and no one believes the Obama administration will follow through. Earlier this year, when America threatened to cut aid if the Fatah faction sought a unity government with Hamas, President Mahmoud Abbas' office said, "Palestinians need American money, but if they use it as a way of pressuring us, we are ready to relinquish that aid." The drive for Palestinian unity went forward; the cut in U.S. aid didn't.
Palestinians may hold out hope that the United States won't veto their petition in the Security Council. Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, minced no words this week on the consequences of U.S. opposition to the Palestinian plan. America will "risk losing the little credibility it has in the Arab world," he warned. "American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined, and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region." In order to preserve the last vestiges of his failed Muslim outreach effort, Mr. Obama could order the American U.N. delegation to vote "present." He's done it before.
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