The coming Palestinian statehood push at the United Nations is a train wreck. But with the U.S. Congress promising punishment for this effrontery, it's not just Palestinians who will come away grievously injured.
- By James TraubJames Traub is a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation. "Terms of Engagement," his column for ForeignPolicy.com, runs weekly. Follow his Twitter feed at @JamesTraub1.
With barely a week to go before the Palestinian Authority (PA) seeks a vote on statehood at the United Nations, members of U.S. Congress have begun to stage a lively competition for the most elaborately punitive legislative response. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has prepared a bill that would withhold funds "from any UN agency or program that upgrades the status of the PLO/Palestinian observer mission," a measure that cleverly kills two abhorred birds — the United Nations and the Palestinians — with one stone. Rep. Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, did her one better with a measure that would eliminate bilateral military assistance for any country that voted for statehood, thus punishing dozens of America’s allies for expressing a difference of opinion. But Rep. Joe Walsh, a right-wing Republican from Illinois, took the cake with a resolution endorsing Israel’s right to annex the West Bank should the PA go ahead with the vote, thus putting an end to a two-state solution. Walsh has proudly noted that he is copying a radical right-wing bill introduced into the Knesset.
This cynical bidding war demonstrates that blind partnership for Israel crosses both partisan and confessional lines: Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists should note that Christians, not Jews, have sponsored much of this legislative blackmail. Fortunately, none of it has a chance of becoming law; the Senate is unlikely even to take up any of these measures. But there is one bill that sounds just sane enough to pose a genuine threat: a House subcommittee has inserted language into an appropriations bill that would cut U.S. budgetary support to the PA should the Palestinians go ahead with the U.N. vote. Compared with all the loony bills, says Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, the liberal Israel lobbying group, "only cutting Palestinian aid begins to look like a compromise position."
Some compromise. Right now, the United States provides slightly more than $500 million a year to the Palestinian Authority. Of that, $200 million goes straight into the Palestinian budget. It is these "Economic Support Funds" that the House measure targets. That’s only about 15 percent of the PA’s $1.3 billion budget; but the Palestinians already have a $600 million deficit and stopped paying public salaries last month. Unless the Saudis or other Gulf Arabs make up the difference — and it’s their failure to make promised payments that has created the shortfall — the enormous progress that the PA has made in building a state could grind to a halt. It’s possible, though unlikely, that an additional $200 million shortfall could lead the PA to collapse. But it’s nearly certain that the government’s legitimacy will suffer — and that United States will be blamed.
Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat and the ranking member on the House committee overseeing foreign aid, has been a leading supporter of the move to threaten the cut in funding. Unlike Walsh, who has said, "There is no such thing as a two-state solution" and believes that peace will come through "Israel having sovereignty over the whole land," Lowey has been a strong supporter of the PA’s state-building process and the U.S. funding that has helped make it possible. I asked why she was prepared to put all that in jeopardy to punish the Palestinians for seeking a vote on statehood. "There has to be a line in the sand," she said. The unilateral bid for statehood undermines the peace process. "The Palestinians," Lowey said, "will have to deal with the consequences."
But it’s not just the Palestinians who will bear the consequences. Anything that jeopardizes the authority of the PA — and by extension the moderate Fatah faction — opens the door to its rival, Hamas, which of course would truly bring the peace process to a halt. And anger over an American decision to not only obstruct the Palestinian bid for statehood but punish its citizens will prove costly for the United States in a new Middle East where public opinion — and people power — increasingly matters.
I asked Lowey whether she worried about these consequences. "I worry," she said, "about the Palestinian Authority going to the U.N." She wasn’t thinking about the consequences; that was the Palestinians’ job. At moments like this, I can’t help feeling that Congress should not be allowed to make foreign policy.
Lowey said that she still hoped that the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would sheer off before she and her colleagues had to deploy their doomsday device. "I am an optimist," she kept repeating, pointing to the U.S. team, led by White House official Dennis Ross, that has been dispatched to the Middle East to gain Israeli and Palestinian agreement on a new framework of negotiations to be held under the aegis of the so-called Quartet, thus derailing the bid for statehood. But these discussions are in fact a shadow play; it is widely understood that Abbas cannot afford to abort the effort unless Israel makes the kind of concessions that it plainly is not prepared to make. Indeed, Abbas just delivered a speech rejecting the diplomatic bid and vowing to seek statehood at the U.N. Security Council.
Lowey and her colleagues are threatening the Palestinians with doom for refusing to engage with a peace process that is self-evidently dead. Palestinian leaders have been quite open about the fact that they chose the U.N. path only after they concluded that Washington could not or would not push Israel into making meaningful concessions. "We know there is no escape from negotiations," a Palestinian official is quoted as saying in a recent report by the International Crisis Group. "We have no options because the process’ sponsor has checked out." The U.N. statehood bid, then, is more a gesture of despair than an act of calculated diplomacy.
Kay Granger, chairman of Lowey’s subcommittee and author of the legislative language terminating aid, recently described the upcoming vote as a "train wreck" — which it may well be. Granger was of course blaming the Palestinians, who are driving the train. But this looming calamity has less to do with Palestinian stubbornness than with Israeli intransigence and American paralysis, both conditioned in part by the pro-Israel (right or wrong) crowd in Congress. In their despair, the Palestinians really may do something genuinely self-destructive. Abbas is fully aware that the United States would veto an attempt to gain statehood in the Security Council. That would be a train wreck, bringing terrible harm both to U.S. standing in the Arab world and to the Palestinians’ standing in the United States. It’s the one thing that might make Senate action on an aid cutoff unavoidable, thus turning Granger’s metaphor into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
President Barack Obama’s administration is now trying to line up enough votes at the Security Council to make a veto unnecessary and then persuade the Palestinians to go instead to the General Assembly, which could not grant statehood but could upgrade their status to that of "nonmember observer state," like the Vatican. Of course, the United States would oppose this too; and the Obama administration is hoping to reduce the Palestinians’ expected margin of victory in the General Assembly by peeling off key European allies. That, according to a senior congressional aide, a U.S. diplomat, and an expert in the region, is the real purpose of the administration’s eleventh-hour dash to the Middle East: to devise language sufficiently acceptable to EU countries that they would agree to vote against the Palestinians in the Security Council or the General Assembly.
This is what U.S. diplomacy on the Middle East has come to. It didn’t have to be this way. Perhaps if Obama didn’t have to worry about the political consequences, he would be trying to find the least confrontational way of giving the Palestinians the dignity of enhanced status at the United Nations. Perhaps administration officials would now be trying to draft a General Assembly resolution that the Palestinians could accept, and that Israel could almost live with.
But they’re not; in fact, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice recently felt compelled to squash rumors that the United States was doing any such thing, lest the Obama administration be accused of accepting an unacceptable reality. Instead, the United States will stand fast with its great friends in the Marshall Islands, and perhaps some EU members, in opposing an upgrade in Palestinian status at the United Nations. Then Congress may punish the Palestinians for their effrontery. And the Palestinians may react badly. And then the Israelis may react badly. And then the Arab street may react badly.
Welcome to the train wreck.