The circus at the United Nations this week has been frustrating for the Obama administration. As the president indicated in his speech to the world body, peace between the Arabs and the Israelis has been his top foreign policy priority since the day he took office. Yet his decision to distance the U.S. from Israel and to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians wasn’t enough to convince the latter to return to the table. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ effort to evade negotiations by asking the UN to give him a state without recognizing Israel is forcing Obama to use his veto to preserve what is left of the U.S.-sponsored peace process. That Obama will earn the jeers of international public opinion by acting in defense of American interests far more than those of Israel is no consolation to a man who came into office convinced the world would fall at his feet.
But the veto will only be the first page of the next chapter of American Middle East diplomacy. What follows will undoubtedly be a new campaign of U.S. pressure on Israel that may eclipse the squabbles that has defined the relationship between the two countries during Obama’s time in the White House.
Despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, the president is still convinced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to solving all of America’s problems in the Middle East. And, though his own bitter experiences with Abbas should have taught him the PA is still unwilling to make the necessary historic compromises to make peace, Obama may answer his international critics with a new effort to re-launch the negotiations that will center on brutal American pressure on Israel.
Having earned the applause of Israelis for his speech at the UN and the prospect of a veto of the Palestinian resolution, the president will likely present a bill for services rendered to Prime Minister Netanyahu in the coming days and weeks. It will come in the form of further demands for Israel to make unilateral concessions in order to entice Abbas to return to negotiations. Netanyahu’s offer of talks without preconditions will be ignored. Instead, we will again hear of the need for Israel to accept the 1967 lines as the starting point for negotiations and for it to freeze building not only in the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well. As in his May speech, it is doubtful these demands will be accompanied by an American call for the Palestinians to give up the right of return and to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state.
Given the potentially grievous political consequences for Obama, many believe he is unlikely to go to battle with Netanyahu again in advance of next year’s elections. But that overestimates Obama’s interest in pleasing pro-Israel voters and underestimates his desire to earn international applause. Besides, this time the rationale for a new campaign of pressure will not be just the imperative of peace but to save Mahmoud Abbas, whose hold on the West Bank will be endangered by the unrest his UN gambit will unleash.
The danger for Israel with such a policy is clear. For Israel to concede the question of territory and borders in advance of negotiations would make such talks a sham. Given the unlikelihood Abbas will ever agree to negotiate even on such advantageous terms, it might be argued this presents no great danger to Israel. But whether Abbas returns to the table or not, the spectacle of the United States once again pushing Israel’s government to abandon Jewish rights and to compromise its security will serve to further isolate Jerusalem in the coming months.
Netanyahu may attempt to meet the president halfway with another West Bank freeze, but he is not going to concede the right of Jews to live and build in all of Jerusalem. It is on this point where he is sure of domestic support that the Israeli will make his stand against a U.S. dictat.
As in the past two and half years, the outcome of this tussle will be decided by two factors Obama can’t control. One is the inability of Abbas to make peace. The other is the unwillingness of the American people and the Congress, including many Democrats, to further downgrade the alliance with Israel. The former means Obama’s pressure will be in vain. The latter will serve, as it has in the past, as a brake on the president’s willingness to push Israel to the brink.