Turtle Bay

Reading beyond the headlines

The Obama administration continued today to search for a way out of a diplomatic impasse that could prompt it to cast its first ever veto in the U.N. Security Council to kill a Palestinian-backed resolution that would declare Israel’s settlement activities illegal. On Thursday, President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with Mahmoud Abbas, president of ...

The Obama administration continued today to search for a way out of a diplomatic impasse that could prompt it to cast its first ever veto in the U.N. Security Council to kill a Palestinian-backed resolution that would declare Israel’s settlement activities illegal. On Thursday, President Barack Obama spoke by telephone with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to discuss the possibility of brokering a compromise before a vote on Friday.

Last night, the Palestinian envoy, Ryad Mansour, rejected a U.S. offer to support a weaker U.N. statement that criticized ongoing Israeli settlements as lacking "legitimacy" and to discuss the prospects of a Security Council visit to the Middle East for the first time since 1979.

The U.S. overture — which I detailed in a post last night — has set off a political firestorm in Washington, where conservatives have accused the administration of betraying America’s closest Middle East ally. "The Obama administration has shown an astonishing unwillingness to stand by Israel at the United Nations, an organization with a long history of blaming Israel for just about every problem in the Middle East," said Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor who is currently exploring a bid to become the Republican presidential nominee for 2012. "It’s time for our U.N. ambassador to finally show some leadership, draw a line in the sand, and defend out historic ally."

Liberals have countered that the U.S. initiative was actually good for the Israelis and bad for the Palestinians. One advocate of the Palestinians, Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Palestine Center, a think tank in Washington, explained that the U.S. statement would have undermined the Palestinian diplomatic strategy of basing its negotiations on international law and dealt considerable political harm to the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Manayyer said the Palestinian push for a Security Council resolution is part of a broader "alternative strategy" — which includes a parallel effort to encourage countries to recognize Palestine as an independent state. That strategy, he said, has grown out of frustration with the failure to achieve the goal of statehood through U.S.-brokered talks with Israel. "This was a way for the United States to duck once again the Palestinians’ demand to base negotiations on international law," he said. "So watering this down to a presidential statement that repeats vague language that avoids definitive language on the legality of settlements completely derails the Palestinians’ alternative strategy…this is just another nail in the coffin."

In some ways, however, the public debate over the U.S. negotiations in New York have centered more on the stark headlines and less on the more nuanced substance of the actual story. In that spirit, I thought it would be worth reiterating what my story said and what it didn’t:

For several weeks, the U.S. had refused to engage the Palestinians or any other Security Council member on the Palestinian draft resolution declaring the Israeli settlements illegal, making it clear it would veto the resolution if it were put to a vote. The U.S. argued forcefully that the question of Israel’s settlement activities, which it had publicly criticized, had no business being discussed inside the Security Council, because they claim it would involve too many players in a necessarily delicate peace process.

It had also reacted coolly to an earlier proposal by Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin to organize a rare U.N. Security Council visit to the region, what would have been the first since 1979. Other council members saw the Russian initiative as a challenge to American leadership in the Middle East, an acknowledgement that the latest U.S.-led peace process, begun in the early days of the Obama administration, was at a dead end. 

Last evening, I reported that the U.S. had for the first time offered the Palestinians and its Arab supporters a compromise proposal. It would support a weaker "presidential statement" — Security Council statements carry less political and legal weight than resolutions — that criticized Israel’s settlement policies, noting that the U.N. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity." It also offered to begin discussions about a possible Security Council visit (the Russian proposal), and to include tough language on the settlements in the next statement from the Mideast Quartet.

Our first headline of the evening took an aggressive view of this news: "In major reversal, U.S. to rebuke Israel," setting off pushback from some interested readers, who complained that it might be misinterpreted as a major policy shift from the U.S. toward Israeli settlement (which it isn’t), or that it might lead readers to think that Washington was, after all changing its mind, and backing a resolution (which it didn’t).

The headline implied the possibility of a stronger shift than what I reported in my story. I suggested a little softening, replacing the word "major" with "sharp" and adding the word "agrees" to reflect the fact that there was no conclusive deal at the time of publication. The headline now reads: "In sharp reversal, U.S. agrees to rebuke Israel."

As it stands, the title is a bit flashy, but accurate. It’s true that the U.S. statement on settlements was no more harsh than what the U.S. has said repeatedly in public. But the U.S. had abruptly reversed its opposition to taking action in the Security Council on Israel’s settlement activities. And a U.N. statement portraying Israel’s settlement activities as illegitimate, if not illegal, can hardly be seen as not criticizing Israel.

Then I got Drudged. Diplomatic developments in New York were moving fast when we posted the story last evening. A couple of hours later, the Palestinians emerged from a meeting of the Arab Group claiming that they had rejected the U.S. offer for being too weak, and pressed for a vote on the original resolution on Friday. We duly updated the story and the headlines to reflect the developments. In the meantime, Politico and the Drudge Report linked to my story — with headlines of their own that were more sensational that what we had settled on at FP — sending an avalanche of readers to my blog. Despite efforts by my editors to get Drudge to update the headline — "USA to Rebuke Israel" — it remained up on the website earlier this afternoon, more than 12 hours after the U.S. plan was rejected.

Washington is still hoping to broker a deal, in hopes of avoiding having to veto a Palestine-initiated resolution, but it’s unclear whether the gap between the U.S. and Arab bloc negotiating positions can be bridged before Friday’s vote.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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