Sunday, September 25, 2011

Palestine’s bid for UN membership: USA in a difficult spot

Daily Sun
September, 25, 2011
M. Serajul Islam

The Palestinians have finally decided to do something for themselves. They have spent decades hoping that the US, the UN and the western powers would use their good offices to convince Israel to agree to Palestinian statehood. They have got nothing with Israel using the indulgence of the US and its allies not only to deny the Palestinians statehood but to build settlements after settlements in occupied land.

The Palestinians had hoped great things from President Obama. In his Cairo speech in June, 2009, the US President had said categorically that the Palestinian issue would top his administration’s foreign policy priorities in the Middle East in contrast to his predecessor who had pushed the issue down in his agenda. Unfortunately, the new administration was able to bring the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians only once, an effort that lasted very briefly in September-October, 2010.

The talks aborted because Israel refused to extend the moratorium on new settlements. The US made no serious efforts to bring Israel to the negotiating table frustrating US Envoy for ME Senator John Mitchell to resign. Instead, even at his speech in UNGA in 2010, President Obama reiterated USA’s support for an independent state of Palestine based on pre-1976 borders with negotiated land swaps while doing little to carry the process of Palestinian statehood forward.

In the process, the United States failed to consider the changes in the ME while indulging the Israelis. The Arab Spring has sent chills down Turkey and Jordan that had diplomatic relations with Israel. Egypt has turned full circle following the downfall of President Mubarak, from being US and Israel’s most dependable ally to their strongest critic. Egyptian public ransacked the Israeli Embassy recently forcing its Ambassador to flee.

The once pro-US monarchies are now wary because Arabs have united themselves in the streets where anti-Israel feeling is a major jelling factor. Continued US bias for Israel is making it more unpopular. The coming together of Fatah and Hamas has also emboldened the Palestinians. These factors have combined to encourage the Palestinians to seek their right of self determination peacefully by stirring the conscience of the world.

In fact, the Palestinians made their intention to seek their destiny at the UN almost a year ago. The US and the Quartet did not take this seriously. They were certain that the move would fizzle out and they would be able to deal with Palestine as they have done in the past; blame them for their problem while pampering the aggressor. They are thus now bewildered and surprised that their decision for statehood has come thus far where the overwhelming majority of UN members support their cause.

The US and the Quartet are thus frantically meeting in order to convince the Palestinians to withdraw. Otherwise, some of them, including the US would have to veto the bid to stop it against world opinion. The US is blowing hot and cold. President Obama has met Mahmud Abbas to urge him to withdraw the bid. In his speech at the UN this week, he asked the Palestinians to seek their statehood by negotiating with the Israelis. Palestinian negotiator Hanan Aswari articulated Palestinian disappointment at the US President’s suggestion by saying that he made it appear as if it is Palestine that has occupied Israel! The US Congress has threatened to stop aid and President Obama has warned the Palestinians that their bid is going to increase volatility in their relations with Israel.

Whatever happens eventually, the membership bid has left the US holding the hot potato. If the bid comes to a vote at the SC, the US would have to veto it and it has said that it would. In fact, in an election year, it would be political suicide for President Obama even to think to the contrary. A veto nevertheless can have disastrous impact on US foreign policy goals in the ME.

The Arab Spring has left US standing in the ME at a historical low. President Obama who had promised so much to the Arab world is now seen as part of Israel’s right wing negotiating team. In fact, Benjamin Netanyahu offered him Israel’s badge of honour for his stand against Palestinian statehood. Most importantly, the veto for Palestinian statehood, if the US is forced to exercise one, would put at jeopardy huge US investments in terms of money and lives in Iraq that would be a tragedy. The US had hoped the US standing and popularity would spread in the region out of its humungous sacrifices in Iraq.

It is for the first time that the US has been placed in such a predicament over Palestine. A veto at the Security Council would not just make US more unpopular in ME; it would have similar impact on the Muslim and developing worlds which explains US’ frantic efforts to talk the Palestine out of the bid. That in itself has put the Palestine for the first time in decades of negotiations in a position where it is the US seeking a favour from it and not the other way around.

President Obama’s dire warnings and consequences accompanied by pleas notwithstanding, there are many who see in the Palestinian bid for UN membership their most viable option. With talks aborted on Israeli whims backed by the US, the Palestinians were in a hopeless situation even though after Fatah and Hamas got together, violence has come down markedly in Palestine-Israel relations. The Palestinians watched with utter frustration President Obama and the US Congress receiving Benjamin Netanyahu as a hero when he visited Washington in May this year. There was not one word or action on that visit that would encourage the Palestinians that the US was willing to play fair with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians have set the ball rolling and forced the issue with the US and the Quartet.. The Palestinian official Nabil Saath said that Benjamin Netanyahu is a pragmatist and the developments in New York may make him change his calculations as the odds change. Going by what is happening now in New York, it is more than certain that the odds are changing and changing in favour of the Palestinians.

The vote in the Security Council will take months. The contesting parties will have time to consider the issues with the US the most worried. The French President has suggested a way out. He said that Palestine should be given “observer status” at the UN that would not give it full membership but open its doors for membership in a number of important UN bodies. This status would also be a prelude to new talks. That in itself would be an achievement for the Palestinians and at the moment seems the minimum they can hope with much more there to negotiate.

By taking the decision for UN membership, the powers that be are treating the Palestinians for the first time as an equal. The Arab Spring has given the Palestinians this strength and this may be the right way to start the process of Palestinian statehood instead of President Obama’s disappointing and frustrating suggestion to the Palestinians to go to the Israelis for their statehood not as an equal but as one seeking favour. .

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and Japan and Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

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