Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mr. President: Play Jujitsu With The U.N. Vote

The most frustrating thing about Gershom Gorenberg's smart letter to President Obama in The American Prospect is that there is nothing in it that its recipient does not already know:

Abbas is going to the U.N. Security Council because bilateral negotiations have become fruitless and embarrassing; the pursuit of statehood is actually a last ditch effort to save the two-state "peace process"; U.N. membership for Palestine would not preclude future negotiations but would clarify their terms and strengthen Abbas, the best of all possible partners in building peace; membership for Palestine in boundaries based on "the 1967 border" is an historic precedent that also confirms Israel's border.

An American veto will sour, if not poison, what residual prestige Obama has gained among the young makers of the Arab Spring; a veto will only throw the issue to the General Assembly, and a defiant vote there by an international majority will intensify Israel's isolation; a General Assembly vote will likely touch off rebellious demonstrations across the region, including, ominously, the West Bank (which the IDF has no way of handling peacefully); acceptance of Palestine by the General Assembly will give it "observer state" status, like the Vatican, and open Israel to proceedings in the International Criminal Court.

Why then is Obama backing Netanyahu in this matter? There is nothing about the decision that we don't already know: 9% jobless, Greece; Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio; AIPAC's email list; Eric Cantor's House; Dennis Ross's hubris; a media that swarms to "disappointed" Democrats (among them, editors of The American Prospect).

It is pretty clear that Obama has about as much room to do what Gorenberg suggests as revive plans for the "public option." Or is it?

I WANT TO stress that I am not among those who have lost respect for the president over the past two years. If anything, his treatment by Democratic "progressives" who can't seem to count to 41, and professional journalists who can't seem to tell correlation from cause and sabotage from strategy, has only increased my admiration for his poise. More on that another time.

But I believe Obama still has an opportunity here, one that plays to his considerable strengths, and it may not be too late to seize it.

Ross and David Hale have tried and predictably failed to preempt the U.N. vote by getting the sides to agree on a formula to resume negotiations. Let us assume the administration goes ahead and vetoes any Security Council resolution, insisting that full statehood must nevertheless be a product of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This will, again, only shift diplomatic activity to the General Assembly.

So why not use the larger forum to sketch out much more completely and assertively what, in America's view, a negotiated settlement would look like? Why not announce support for upgrading Palestine to observer statehood along with a commitment to veto any House resolution to cut off support for the PA? (J Street has, in effect, suggested a move of this kind, supporting the veto but leaving open the possibility of endorsing a General Assembly resolution while strongly opposing cutting off help to Ramallah.)

Just to be clear, I share Gorenberg's wish that Obama's administration had acted more aggressively last spring, though I understand the president's need to pick fights (and bundlers) judiciously. And I realize this approach to the General Assembly is a little fancy: for many, the U.N. is the U.N., a vote is a vote, the media's question is whether you are "pro-Israel" or not.

But as Abbas well knows, this U.N. move is political theater for everybody. The question is whether the Obama administration can play jujitsu with it, turning negative energy in the Security Council into a positive energy in the General Assembly hall, that is, force the writers of headlines around the world to think of something more nuanced and hopeful than "Obama Sinks Palestinian State."

The president has already stated his view that negotiations should proceed on the basis of the 1967 borders. Why not use this occasion to endorse the rest of the Olmert-Abbas package: an international Holy Basin in Jerusalem, a formula to acknowledge the rights of refugees, a series of steps to promote regional integration? The vision would resound in the Arab world, especially if Obama wins endorsement from the EU (and finds a way to be photographed with leaders of the emerging Libya).

Instead of just opposing Abbas's U.N. initiative, then, the administration could try to shape something more popular with Israel's perplexed majority. It is in this context he might have adopted Dan Kurtzer's suggestion that a General Assembly resolution be based on the original partition plan, which ratified international recognition of a vaguely "Jewish state."

THE LOBBY'S HARD-RIGHT forces will never forgive Obama for this, anymore than for the '67-border thing, and (as Gorenberg suggests) would never vote for him anyway. But 60-70% of American Jews are more admiring of David Remnick than Ed Koch. They will support a clear path to peace if they can be sure Obama is generally sympathetic to Israel, which (alas,) the Security Council veto will prove. It could be followed up by a trip to Jerusalem and rally in Tel Aviv. In for an agora, in for a shekel?

Anyway, the possible loss of some Jewish voters is far less important to Obama than the possible gain of voters who will see his global spine. Doing something unexpected, but something everybody from New York Times editors to David Patraeus, Tony Blair to Haaretz, can publicly defend, is worth the risk.

Obama, after all, can win over the predictable demographics and still fall short next November--unless he can turn around the perception (not deserved, but there you are) that he has been playing much too safe. We write about "independents" as if they are independent minded when they are mostly people waiting to see who others are flocking to; people impressed by trends and "strength" and Bin Laden assassinations. They are waiting to see if talking heads start calling Obama bold again, if his own start calling him theirs again.

Obama does not have many more dramatic ways to turn things around with domestic policy. Here is his chance to show courage in foreign policy, and about the region he is most heavily invested in. He can do it with a step that feels consistent with his policies and values (and unearned prizes), not some opportunistic lurch--indeed, at a time when forces at home are putting Netanyahu on the ropes. Throw Palestinians and the Israeli peace camp a life-line, Mr. President. Save yourself.


Richard Witty said...

I think the history of the Palestinian petition to the UN will be written after.

I think it is clear that Abbas, Fayyad and the PA very responsibly desire their community's genuine independence, health and social justice, while ending as good neighbors to a good neighbor Israel.

Palestine is ultimately more dependent economically and for freedom of movement, than Israel is dependent on Palestine (even given the affects of Arab and world sympathy).

I believe that Abbas has staked an admirable combination of assertion with real-politik.

Israel has not responded in kind, but instead pettily, meanly.

But, the problem for Palestine is the flanks. Those that will use the history for their own escalatory partisan purposes, in Palestinian solidarity, and in Israel. Moderation be damned.

If you read the further left Palestinian solidarity press (electronic intifada for example), one would think that Palestinian street does regard the petition and led by Fatah, as another betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

In contrast, there was a Maan poll published recently that described Palestinians as supportive of the petition, not angry (concerned) that it seems to dampen the form and scope of assertion for right of return.

What happens next is what is important?

David said...

Bernard, Obama could walk into the UN next week himself and cast that vote FOR a Palestinian state. But he won't. Your (and J Street's) unconditional love of the president will have to stop there.

Y. Ben-David said...

Why is this the last straw for the 'prestige of Obama' if he vetoes the Palestinian state? Wasn't the veto of the resolution condemning the settlements poiston enough? It must have killed Obama to have to do it, yet Abbas turned down all the goodies Obama offered him in order to withdraw the motion. Same this time.
Regarding the "last chance for the 2-state solution" question is why would Abbas WANT to save it? He has no attachment to it, it is merely a WEAPON to use against sounds more reasonable than the old Arab cry to "throw the Jews into the sea". It is a way to carry out a political war of attrition against Israel by mobilizing "progressives" in Europea and the US against Israel while they might balk at the "one-state solution" which is the only Abbas would ever sign his name to. Abbas will NEVER sign a peace agreement with Israel under ANY conditions.
Abbas has a division of labor with his HAMAS brothers..he carries out a political battle, and they have the rockets and terrorists to be used for "armed resistance" while Abbas continue to claim he is against it while knowing that HAMAS will keep up the pressure for him. Neat, isn't it?

Sagredo said...

Here's something I don't understand, and my apologies if you answer it in your book. The Israeli demand for Palestine to explicitly recognise it as a "Jewish state", is it genuine? And if so, why isn't there more playing around with the wording, alternative formulations and so on that allay Israeli Jewish anxieties without suggesting a second-class status for non-Jewish Israelis?

After all, we're not talking about what Israel's constitution or Basic Law says about Israel, we're talking about what an external newly-recognised state says about Israel.

"A state for Jews", perhaps, that might also be a state for others. Or recognising the right of Israeli Jews to live in the land, without necessarily recognising the right of all Jews to do so. Why is there no creativity here?

Y. Ben-David said...

One of the major myths that was used to sell the "peace process" to Israelis is the false belief that international relations ultimately are based on economic interests. The idea Peres, Beilin and others sold was with peace, ecnomic relations would open up with the Arab countries, and once these were established, the Arabs would have no choice but to maintain peaceful relations in order to keep the money flowing. This week there were two developments that showed this is not true...first the Egyptian government banned the export of palm fronds for use by Jews during the Sukkot holiday. In recent years, up to 700,000 fronds were exported from the Sinai to Israel.
Here is a link:

The second item was the announcement by Turkey of a major reduction in the number of charter flights of Israeli tourists to Turkey. In recent years, up to 300,000 Israelis were visiting Turkey, bringing in millions of dollars to the Turkish economy. Erdogan, with his threats and harrassment of Israeli passengers in Turkey has assured that this is drying up and it is expected that the flights will cease altogether in the near future.

Any promises about "Israeli-Palestinian economic cooperation" after a Palestinian state is supposedly set up is just as ephemeral. The Palestinians would implement a policy of "economic nationalism" in order to increase "national pride" instead of depending on the Zionist enemy (Which is how Israel would continue to be viewed even in the event of a "peace agreement") for trade.

Potter said...

Gorenberg is right. Abbas decision to bring this issue to the UN for a vote represents a concession to Israel in and of itself. It means that Palestinians will accept the pre-67 borders as Israel. I could never understand why, if Israel's leaders were interested in security, they did not want to push for a Palestinian state, a state that would force the responsibilities of being a state ( recognized by the world body) upon itself. I also see this move as conferring more legitimacy/ authority upon the UN. Dr. Avishai is right that the GA, after a SC veto, will probably be defiant. I felt that it was ( and is) a good bet that Palestinians would be more interested in building a state and getting to normal life than destroying itself and Israel.

I could never understand the settlement policy as about anything more than sheer unreasonable stubborn greed for land and religious fanaticism and consequently suicide for Israel. I completely agreed with Abbas holding out for the COMPLETE freeze before negotiations. I blame Israel for the failure of recent insincere attempts at negotiation. Only the blind could not see the Israeli right wingers jumping up and down in the background as Netanyahu uttered "two state solution". And now the operative words are "unilateral move" ( at the UN) as though settlements were not unilateral moves, as though annexations were not unilateral moves.

For Israel's sake, for the unmovable, and those living with delusions on both sides, going the UN route on the part of Abbas is brilliant.

I have no hope for Obama's ability to take this advice. None. What angers me is that he is not going to act in our ( US) best interests.

I wish, Dr. Avishai, that you will soon elaborate on your criticism of Democratic progressive criticism of Obama. My impression is that is it not only they who hold those views of disappointment and disillusion about Obama; others have come to feel this way as well.

If I follow opinion makers, then I choose based on my sense of what is actually happening vis a vis the leaderships.

Israel Does Not Want a Palestinian State. Period.

Y. Ben-David said...

I will take your last sentence and modify it slightly:

The Palestinians Don't Want a Palestinian State. Period.

They don't want peace, they want a "peace process" while they conduct a "war of attrition" in the UN, with BDS, with HAMAS doing the dirty work of firing rockets. It won't work. "Recognizing" Israel within the Green Line means nothing if they insist on the Right of Return of the refugees. That is the game breaker, and the whole world knows it. That is why the US and others will vote against the Palestinian state in the UN.

Bernard Avishai said...

Sagredo, how about we call the state "Israel" and make Hebrew the primary official language? Abbas has no problem with either. This is what we mean when we say France is a French state. I don't mean to sound snide, truly, but what's obvious in the rest of the world (except for Pakistan, etc., should be obvious for Jews, and Zionists particularly, people who dreamed of transforming Jews into a modern nation.

Y. Ben-David said...

By agreeing to admit potentially millions of refugees which would turn Israel into another Lebanon or Iraq, isn't Israel admitting that its creation was a crime against humanity. After all, it was the Arabs who started the war by proclaiming Jihad to destroy the yishuv. Why on earth would we agree to negate that historical fact? No one says the millions of Germans expelled from eastern Europe after World War II have the right to go back. Same with the millions expelled from Pakistan as a result of the partition (a couple million were expelled from Bengal a couple of years AFTER the whole upheaval of partition came to an end in 1947-8). Or do you think that Abbas will give it up, after promising for decades that he won't and risk eating a bullet as Arafat said would happen to him if he tried to do that?

Potter said...

It's not the writers of headlines that have to think of something more nuanced and hopeful. It' not the talking heads calling him bold that will make him bold and will get the voters, his voters, back for him. Give voters some credit please. It's Obama that has to show he is a leader, willing to take risks for what is right, what he knows is right. It won't be by making a speech to the GA, after a SC veto, that he is seen all of a sudden to be believable. I don't think he gets much credibility anymore from a speech,

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