How serious is U.S. President Barack Obama about averting a theatrical United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood next week? We know that the United States has said it will veto any such vote, but the famously anti-Israel U.N. General Assembly may still take the vote forward in a way that is more symbolic than binding. Given the potential consequences of any such vote, the Obama administration should be flexing all its diplomatic muscle to ensure that it does not stand alone against this reckless and provocative move.
Tensions in Egypt remain high as the government (such that it is) battles to satisfy young protesters and keep the country safe at the same time. Libya is at a historic crossroads, with the West hurrying to fix up some signposts. Syria continues its brutal crackdown, seemingly undisturbed by Western sanctions and rhetoric. Turkey is flexing its muscles as a new power broker, and Iran continues to pursue its nuclear weapons program. Amid this melting pot of hope and turmoil, the region’s strongest democracy, Israel, is isolated and weakened and in need of its friends.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron repeatedly refuses to be drawn on how his government intends to vote at the United Nations. This is what he told David Frost on Al Jazeera earlier this week:
Britain and America are very, very strong allies. We work together on so many things. In this job you really see the benefits of the huge cooperation and the work that we do. But on this issue there have been times when we’ve voted in different ways, particularly on the settlement issue, and Britain will always do what it thinks is right.”
Britain has taken a leading role on the world stage since this coalition government was formed in May 2010, not least of course in the Libyan intervention. Throughout the tumultuous events in the Middle East and North Africa, Cameron has repeatedly supported calls for democratic reform and pluralization in the region. This leadership is at odds with his failure to articulate his government’s position on the matter of Palestinian statehood. Neither he nor his ministers will be drawn into anything other than generalities.
Is this a "good cop, bad cop" routine devised by the United States and Britain, or is it simply that the British government no longer stands so firmly with the Middle East’s strongest democracy? By refusing to make its position clear, Britain is playing a risky game. True alliances in the Middle East are hard to come by, and I understand from private sources that the Israelis are dumbfounded by the lack of support from old friends, particularly Britain.
And the Israelis are right to be worried. The Palestinian Liberation Organization’s ambassador to the United States, Maen Areikat, said this week that their future state should be free of Jews. He said, "It would be in the best interest of the two peoples to be separated." This prompted former Bush administration Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams to describe the ambassador’s sentiment as "a despicable form of anti-Semitism," adding that "no civilized country would act this way."
With rhetorical tensions at an all-time high, the United States must increase its efforts to persuade the British government to reject calls for Palestinian statehood. If the Britain still counts Israel as a key regional ally and still believes in a negotiated peace, this is the only course of action open to David Cameron.