It’s easy to see who won the great debate that captivated the United Nations last week. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas made an eloquent case that after twenty years of a futile “peace process,” the time had come to end Israel’s occupation and for the UN to admit his country as a full member state.
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu called for peace talks “without preconditions”—only to inject such preconditions (like the PA recognizing Israel’s “Jewish character”) that would make talks a nonstarter. Abbas was received rapturously; Netanyahu, coolly.
But the villain was Barack Obama, at least for those peoples in a region where Israel’s occupation is becoming the permafrost on the Arab Spring. The United States had long made it clear it would veto any Palestinian bid for full membership. But President Obama didn’t just rehearse Israeli arguments against the move; he adopted Israel’s narrative on the conflict. “Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” he said.
Obama made no mention of the occupation, Jewish settlements or even that, since 2002, those neighbors have offered Israel a full peace in return for a full withdrawal from occupied Arab land. It was the most pro-Israeli speech ever made by a US president at the UN, said a veteran Jewish American commentator. It’s “the reason we are going to the UN,” seethed Palestinian delegate Hanan Ashrawi.
The task there is herculean. The PA faces obstruction not only from Washington but from supposed allies like the European Union, the UN and even Russia, the three other members of the so-called Quartet. No sooner had Abbas submitted his bid to the Security Council than all four united to contain it, alarmed that a US veto would inflame anti-Western passions across the Middle East. The Quartet called for the two sides to resume negotiations in a month and reach a peace agreement in a year.
That proposal has been tried in the past. It will tank this time too. Abbas says there can be no return to talks unless they are accompanied by a freeze on settlement-building and are based on the 1967 armistice lines as the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. The Quartet statement specifies neither.
As of now, six of the Security Council’s fifteen members are backing the PA’s bid. It needs nine to force a vote. If it fails to get a vote, that would suit the United States and, it seems, the Quartet.
Abbas’s dilemma is acute. If he accepts the Quartet’s terms, he would undo all the kudos he has gained for his refusal to bend under US pressure. But if he rejects them, he risks alienating the EU, the UN and Russia, the powers he thinks are needed as a counterweight to Washington’s pro-Israel bias. This dilemma exposes the weakness at the heart of the UN gambit.