This week push may come to shove on the long-simmering feud between President Obama and the Israeli government. With the Palestinians pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would unilaterally recognize their independence in the territory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the administration must decide whether it is truly in its interests to facilitate an end run around the peace process it has sponsored by refusing to veto the measure just to demonstrate its pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu and or undermine his chances for reelection in the March elections. But while the stakes here are high for both Israel, whose isolation could be greatly increased by passage of such a resolution, and Netanyahu, the danger to Obama’s foreign policy and U.S. interests from such a vote is high as well. Just as important, the notion that passage of this resolution has anything to do with promoting peace is farcical.
The Palestinian Authority’s motives for seeking to gain a Security Council vote on recognition of their independence are clear. They claim that the peace negotiations promoted by the U.S. over the years has not brought them closer to their declared goal of gaining a state and that only by having the international community force its hand will Israel ever be willing to retreat to the 1967 lines and let Palestinians enjoy sovereignty and self-determination. That is the argument behind the decisions of several European parliaments to adopt resolutions endorsing Palestinian statehood.
But it must be understood that this campaign is about avoiding a negotiated end to the conflict, not finding a shortcut to one. The Palestinians have, after all, been offered statehood in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem three times by the Israelis in 2000, 2001, and 2008. Even Netanyahu’s government arrived at the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry in the last year prepared to offer another two-state solution with a prominent advocate of this plan, Tzipi Livni, as their negotiator. But PA leader Mahmoud Abbas blew up those talks just as he fled the table in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him virtually everything he had asked for. The obstacle wasn’t Israeli settlements or intransigence, but the fact that Abbas knows it would be political suicide for him to sign any deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one, no matter where its borders were drawn.
What the Palestinians want, in other words, is a way to avoid negotiations that would obligate them in one form or another to end the conflict with Israel as the price of their independence. The problem with negotiations isn’t that the Israelis, even Netanyahu, have been intransigent, but that no matter how much Obama and Kerry tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, a solution must in the end require them to make peace. The UN resolution they want would merely obligate the Israelis to retreat from more territory without any assurances that what happened when they gave up every inch of Gaza in 2005—the creation of a terrorist Hamas state—would not happen again in the more strategic and larger West Bank.
Obama would savor the embarrassment this would cause Netanyahu, whose chances for reelection might be damaged by an open breach with the United States and the country’s increased isolation as the world demanded it give up land without offering it peace. But this would also mean the effective end of a major portion of the president’s foreign-policy focus: the achievement of a Middle East peace agreement. It would also mark the end of U.S. influence over either side to the confrontation as both Israelis and Palestinians would no longer need or have any desire to gravitate to the U.S.
The surge in Palestinian violence and the growing support for their statehood among European governments may cause Obama to feel more pressure to go along with Western European allies. Just as important, he may be dismayed by the thought that another veto that backs up a negotiated path to Palestinian statehood will be interpreted by Israelis as proving that Netanyahu has, contrary to his critics, not destroyed the alliance. The irony that a decision by the prime minister’s bitter American enemy would help undermine arguments for Netanyahu’s replacement has to worry Obama. But he should also be worried by the blowback from a failure to order a veto.
The president’s hard-core left-wing supporters might defend such a decision but it would be widely condemned by most Democrats, who will rightly see it as a cynical betrayal of principle motivated more by personal grudges than the national interest. It might also backfire in Israel since voters there would be entitled to say the non-veto was proof of Obama’s irremediable hostility to the Jewish state and might motivate many to back Netanyahu so as to demonstrate their unwillingness to be intimidated into accepting measures that would undermine their security and rights.
The optimal scenario for Obama is to avoid any vote on Palestinian independence in the Security Council that would destroy the peace process. But if he is in this difficult position, it’s largely the fault of his own efforts. After spending the last few years bending over backwards trying to demonstrate daylight between the positions of Israel and the United States, the Palestinians have come to believe that sooner or later the president will hand them the diplomatic victory they long for without being forced to pay any price for it. Doing so will be as much a blow to U.S. interests as it will be to Israel, but it’s hard to blame either the Palestinians or the Europeans for thinking that this time, Obama will really betray the Israelis simply in order to harm Netanyahu. If he does, it will mark a new low for an administration that has already turned undermining allies into an art form.