For months, the world was warned by foreign policy experts the push for United Nations recognition of an independent Palestinian state would create a diplomatic tsunami with terrible consequences for Israel. But several weeks after the opening of the annual session of the General Assembly, it appears the tsunami isn’t as devastating as the scaremongers had expected.
Though the Palestinians have made some headway with their admission to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), they have hit a major and somewhat unexpected roadblock in the Security Council. While their drive for statehood was always thought to be doomed because of a U.S. veto in that body, it seems that won’t even be necessary, as the Palestinians failed to get the nine affirmative votes everyone thought they had in their pockets. This not only gets President Obama off the hook for the veto, but it also demonstrates that international support for the Palestinians isn’t as strong as everyone thought it was only a couple of months ago.
This turn of events makes clear a couple of points that contradict the conventional wisdom about Israel and the Palestinians.
The first is that the Palestinians are nowhere near so popular, and the Israelis not as unpopular as everyone assumed. In particular, the Netanyahu government, which has been blasted for its supposed diplomatic ineptness, turns out to be a lot savvier about the international scene than its critics have been saying. While much of the heavy lifting on this vote must be credited to the Obama administration, the Israelis appear to have skillfully won over some countries the Palestinians had counted on.
One of them was Muslim-dominated Bosnia, which was thought to be an easy win for the Palestinians. But the announcement this past week that Bosnia would abstain rather than vote for Palestinian independence was a major victory for Israel. Those who have dismissed Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as a buffoon will be astonished to learn he was in Bosnia only last week meeting with its leaders. While their vote probably hinged on more than sweet talk from Lieberman, he must get some of the credit there.
Israel has severe handicaps in diplomatic forums as an anti-Western and often anti-Semitic Third World consensus is aligned against it. But what Israel’s supporters often forget is that the Palestinians’ thuggish and often amateurish tactics have not necessarily won them loyal friends and allies. Though lip service is paid by many of these countries to the idea of Palestinian independence and hostility to Israel, it turns out many of these same nations as well as much of the UN bureaucracy is more worried about the consequences of the withdrawal of U.S. financial support than they are about the sensibilities of the residents of Ramallah and Gaza.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spoke in the months leading up to this UN session as if the consequences of his decision to try an end run around the U.S.-peace process would be borne only by Israel and America. Yet by the time the dust settles on this confrontation, it may be that the real losers in this exchange will be the UN and the Palestinians themselves. By failing to force a U.S. veto, the Palestinians have lost a great deal of the leverage over Obama they thought they had. And rather than reproaching only Obama and Netanyahu for the inevitable loss of funds to groups like UNESCO, the world may also be blaming the Palestinians for trying to win independence for a divided people (with Gaza still ruled by Abbas’s enemy Hamas) without first making peace with its neighbor Israel.
Though Israel is far from out of the woods–with a General Assembly vote still a possibility and battles in other agencies yet to come–the last several weeks have served to undermine the notion of an inevitable Palestinian diplomatic triumph. If anyone looks foolish today, it is Abbas, and not Netanyahu.