The controversial Palestinian request for United Nations membership is the culmination of three competing strategies pursued by the United States, Israel and thePalestinians over the last three years.
The curtain opened in early 2009 with two new governments: a right-wing coalition in Israel and a more diplomacy-oriented administration in the United States. In the background were two huge developments in previous months: First, in September 2008, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a dramatic offer to provide the Palestinians with a state the size of the pre-1967 West Bank, a Jerusalem divided with a capital for Israel and a Palestinian state, and a return of Palestinian refugees to a Palestinian state with a small number of Palestinians allowed to return to Israel. Although no prime minister since 1967 has made this generous an offer, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas did not accept the plan, but did not reject it either. To Olmert’s great consternation, he remained silent. Second, in the weeks prior to President Obama’s inauguration, Israel initiated a brief war whose objective was to end the missile attacks on its territory from nearby Gaza.
The fledgling Obama administration basically chose to ignore both of these developments and pursue peace talks, appointing a Mideast envoy — former Sen. George Mitchell — and moving to press both sides to enter negotiations quickly, pressing the new Netanyahu government to freeze settlements totally as part of the new approach. Less known at the time, the new American administration also initiated the most substantial program of security assistance to Israel in history. No request was off the table, and we now know that even the bunker-busting bombs that could facilitate an attack on Iran, which former President George W. Bush had turned down, were provided as well.
This policy of diplomatic challenge to Israel combined with secret assistance did not work because neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians cooperated. Abbas had a choice: He could go along with the president, enter negotiations and assume that since Obama’s vision of a final settlement was closer to Olmert than to Netanyahu, the Mitchell-led talks would lead to strong backing by the United States for most of his positions, except on refugees. The alternative was to reject the Obama approach by raising endless obstacles, meanwhile pursuing a policy of isolating and delegitimizing Israel, climaxing in the bid for U.N. membership without any of the outstanding issues settled with Israel. Abbas chose the latter.
The ensuing Palestinian strategy saved the new Israeli government from a diplomatic trap, but served to accelerate its isolation. Given his right-wing coalition, Netanyahu could claim he wanted negotiations without preconditions and then do nothing but wait, meanwhile resisting most of Obama’s entreaties. Occasionally, Netanyahu did make concessions, such as accepting the notion of a two-state solution — a first for a Likud prime minister — the 10-month moratorium on West Bank construction from 2009 to 2010, the reduction in roadblocks on the West Bank and hints that he would accept Obama’s formula of pre-1967 borders and mutually agreed swaps, after his May 2011 campaign against it in Washington. Otherwise, Netanyahu pocketed Obama’s security cooperation and stood still. His government offered no creative formulas to break the stalemate, no new ideas, nothing. Even when the Obama administration offered a reasonable formula to break the logjam with the Turks, or at least test Ankara’s seriousness about cooling down the conflict, the Israeli government refused. And it reacted to the Arab Spring with caution, even fear, but no diplomatic initiative.
The Obama strategy comprised two levels with both the Israelis and Palestinians: For the latter, there was severe disagreement privately but a seeming acquiescence publicly in Palestinian stalling tactics. With the Israelis, it was the reverse: intense cooperation and largesse privately on security issues, but repeated spats publicly on diplomatic matters. Both the Israelis and Palestinians undercut Obama at every turn, and the status quo could not last. It burst in New York.
First, the Obama administration did finally rebel at Abbas’ tendency to undermine every Obama initiative. Refusal to cease and desist in the U.N. initiative, which the Obama team genuinely believes was counterproductive and puts the United States in a no-win diplomatic cul-de-sac, was the last straw.
Second, Obama’s saving of six security officials trapped at the beleaguered Israeli embassy through personal pressure on the interim Egyptian government forced Israelis from Netanyahu on down to acknowledge publicly how helpful the president had been.
Third, domestic American politics finally intervened. Abandoning his fear of confronting the Arab world publicly despite his frustration with Palestinian strategy, Obama swung to the Israeli side in the kind of warm and reassuring speech Israel’s American advocates had begged for, and at the U.N. General Assembly no less.
But Obama’s swing toward Israel was accompanied by the Quartet’s statement in favor of follow-up meetings and an agenda replete with an international conference in Moscow to reach a peace deal by the end of 2012. Abbas’ initial reaction: rejection of the approach.
So we are back to where we started, except that the Obama administration is now publicly as frustrated with Palestinian diplomacy as it is with the Netanyahu government’s failure to produce any initiative of its own. And the U.N. drama will continue.
Over the next several months, the key question will be whether the Israelis or the Palestinians change course, and their assessment of American domestic politics will be critical. Will the Palestinians be so intent on going it alone that they are prepared to risk the ascension to power of a Republican president whose policies are similar to those of the current right-wing coalition in Israel? Will the Netanyahu coalition prefer the comforting words of such a president, who may not have the funds or the will to match his/her comforting public statements with the kind of intense and expensive security assistance Obama has provided and will undoubtedly continue to provide as the implications of the Arab Spring unfold? Will either be satisfied with a Republican president who will be beholden to the Tea Party and others who want more isolation and less foreign aid?
The poor strategies of the parties remain the real obstacle to progress. Both the Israelis and Palestinians are pursuing self-defeating policies that will continue to cause tensions in the region, with the United States and the international community. Unless one or both of them changes his approach, Obama will continue to appear weak as he tries to get both sides to alter course using some pressure and more carrots. Progressively, as the U.S. elections near, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to decide whether they want Obama to look stronger with some achievement or risk a very different American administration. Their destinies depend on the gambles they both make.
Steven L. Spiegel is director of the Center for Middle East Development and professor of political science at UCLA.