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Why Does the White House Object to a ‘Sovereign’ Palestinian State?

The United States seeks to rewrite the history of international peace efforts in the Middle East.

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The Trump administration this week successfully blocked a bid by the Palestinians to win United Nations Security Council backing for a resolution condemning the White House’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan as a breach of international law.

But not before the administration tried to persuade the Palestinians and their allies to water down the resolution with a series of American amendments that would remove references to Israel as an “occupying power” and eliminate the word “sovereign” in describing the Israeli and Palestinian states. The confidential amendments are being posted here as part of Foreign Policy’s Document of the Week series.

The current U.S. attitude toward Palestinian self-governance contrasts sharply with President Donald Trump’s promotion of national sovereignty during his September 2019 address to the U.N. General Assembly, where he declared, “the future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbors, and honor the differences that make each country special and unique.”

For Palestinians, sovereignty is an “amorphous concept” that its leaders cannot be fully trusted to possess, according to Trump’s long-awaited Middle East peace proposal—titled “Vision for Peace, Prosperity, and a Brighter Future”—which the president unveiled during a Jan. 28 White House press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side.

“A realistic solution would give the Palestinians all the power to govern themselves but not the powers to threaten Israel,” the plan says. “This necessarily entails the limitations of certain sovereign powers in the Palestinian areas … such as maintenance of Israeli security responsibility and Israeli control of the airspace west of the Jordan River.”

The Palestinians, backed by the Security Council’s lone Arab government, Tunisia, and Indonesia, circulated a draft resolution earlier this month that “strongly regrets” that the Trump plan “breaches international law and internationally endorsed terms of reference for the achievement of a just, comprehensive, and lasting solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an effort to head off the resolution’s passage, top U.S. officials in Washington and world capitals pressured governments with representatives on the 15-nation council to oppose the initiative.

Last week, Tunisia’s U.N. ambassador, Moncef Baati, was abruptly recalled to his capital and summarily fired for leading negotiations on an initial Palestinian draft resolution. His dismissal came after Trump’s Middle East advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner telephoned top Tunisian officials to warn that the move could harm U.S. relations with the North African country. The Tunisian foreign ministry released a statement saying Baati had been “dismissed for purely professional reasons concerning his weak performance and lack of coordination with the ministry on important matters under discussion at the UN.”

The Palestinian, Indonesian, and Tunisian delegations subsequently distributed a weakened draft, which simply noted that the U.S. plan “departs from the internationally endorsed terms of reference and parameters for the achievement of a just, comprehensive, and lasting solution to this conflict.”

But the United States, backed by Britain, maneuvered to have the resolution’s passage stopped on Monday morning, citing concerns that it was implicitly critical of Trump’s peace efforts. Instead, the United States proposed the addition of a phrase that acknowledged the Trump plan “shares the aim of the achievement of a just, comprehensive and lasting solution to this conflict.”

It’s unclear whether the United States would have ultimately voted to support the resolution if it took its amendments on board, or whether it would simply have spared the United States from casting a veto. In the end, the Palestinians decided to withdraw their resolution from consideration, sparing Washington the need to act. But the U.S. amendments provide insight into America’s behind-the-scenes negotiating strategy in New York.

For instance, the United States sought to strip out provisions that defined Israeli annexation of Palestinian land as illegal or called on states to oppose any changes to Israel’s pre-1967 borders not agreed by both the Palestinians and Israelis. It removed provisions condemning the demographic alteration of Palestinian lands, reaffirming the illegality of settlements on land seized by Israel since 1967 as well as the “inadmissability of the acquisition of territory by force.”

The United States also proposed eliminating any explicit reference to nearly a dozen previous Security Council resolutions—as well as prior international agreements like the Arab Peace Initiative—that have set the basic terms of a future settlement of the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In its place, the United States proposed the council simply recall its relevant resolutions.

The move reflects the deep suspicion Kushner and other senior administration officials have expressed of the U.N. role in the Middle East peace process and the utility of existing U.N. resolutions that have served as a basis for Middle East peace talks for decades. They have been trying to upend Middle East diplomacy by starting from something of a blank slate.

“Since 1946, there have been close to 700 United Nations General Assembly resolutions and over 100 United Nations Security Council resolutions in connection with this conflict,” according to the Trump administration’s 181-page plan. “While we are respectful of the historic role of the United Nations in the peace process, this Vision is not a recitation of General Assembly, Security Council and other international resolutions on this topic because such resolutions have not and will not resolve the conflict.”

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

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