Swim against the tide: Recognize Palestine at the U.N.

Swim against the tide: Recognize Palestine at the U.N.

Michael C. Desch of Notre Dame offers the following guest post:

There are lots of reasons that President Barack Obama will remain comfortably within the consensus here in the United States and oppose any Palestinian request for recognition of their statehood later this month at the United Nations. 

Not opposing the Palestinians’ request for U.N. recognition would cut against the grain of U.S. policy toward the region. In a July vote marked by the level of unanimity that is usually only seen in one party "people’s democracies," the House of Representatives voted 406 to 6 to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if it moves ahead. The president is also up for re-election next year, and given the shaky state of the U.S. economy, the race will be close and he will not want to alienate any potential supporters, including the Israel lobby. 

But the problem with our "unwavering" support for the policies of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is that it rests on a questionable assumption: That the Palestinians represent the main obstacle to peace today.

The Palestinians’ and the rest of the Arab World’s unwillingness to recognize the Jewish state may have been the primary road-block to peace in the past. But since the Arab League’s March 2002 Beirut Declaration offering recognition of Israel in exchange for a Palestinian state and the coming to power in the West Bank of a moderate and effective government under President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad Salam, Israel now has, Hamas notwithstanding, real partners for peace. Indeed, had the Palestinians focused their struggle for self-determination in the U.N. 40 years ago, we all would have been thrilled.

But it is not clear that the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world have a partner on the Israeli side.  Former head of Israel’s secret service the Mossad Meir Dagan, surely no pro-Palestinian dove, has vociferously criticized Netanyahu’s lack of vision for failing to offer a credible Israeli peace initiative; a criticism that Netanyahu’s ally World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder echoed. 

It is the structure of Israel’s multi-party democratic political system that gives the roughly 30 percent of the Israeli public unalterably committed to retaining the occupied territories and all of Jerusalem  disproportionate influence in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. There are other potential coalition partners for Netanyahu who support the two state solution, including the Centrist Kadima Party, but Obama needs to prod Netanyahu to embrace them. 

One lever is the Israelis’ anxiety about the "delegitimization" of the Jewish state, which is why they fear the prospect of the United Nations General Assembly’s recognition of Palestine.    Obama should threaten to abstain in this matter if the Netanyahu government continues to drag its feet in fully embracing the two-state solution, Israel’s only hope for remaining Jewish and democratic. 

Putting an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict would be good not only for the Palestinians and the Israelis; most importantly it will also advance U.S. interests.  We tend to dismiss al Qaeda’s (and other radical states’) embrace of the Palestinian cause as cynical rhetoric. But there is no doubt that the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands anti-U.S. sentiments, hindering our war against terrorism. Also, as the Arab Spring gives the Arab Street a great voice, it is clear that this issue resonates broadly.

According to a recent poll by Professor Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution, 86 percent of Arabs regard the resolution of this conflict as among their top concerns, 85 percent have a "somewhat" or" very unfavorable" view of the United States, and 80 percent say their negative attitudes are reactions to U.S. policies, including our one-sided support for the state of Israel.  Such attitudes ought to worry Americans because our continuing war with al Qaeda is a contest for "hearts and minds" in the Arab street.

Given that reality, the short-run political costs Obama might incur would be a small price to pay for improving the United States’ standing in Middle East public opinion. Not hindering the Palestinians at the United Nations this month would be just the sort of bold move that, rather than setting back the peace process which is dead in the water as is, could shake things up in the region for the better, which is ultimately in everyone’s interests, especially our own.  

Michael C. Desch is professor of political science and co-director of the International Security Program at the University of Notre Dame.