As Israel has lately found itself on the receiving end of several dangerous surprises, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to get out in front before the next possible diplomatic catastrophe. Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador to Ankara, and a Cairo mob ran the Israeli embassy staff out of the Egyptian capital, but by the time the Palestinian delegation comes to New York on September 23 to seek a U.N. resolution declaring statehood, Netanyahu plans to be sitting in the driver’s seat.
It’s hard to know who more dreads the prospect of Bibi in Turtle Bay—Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas or Barack Obama. Indeed, the White House is still licking its wounds from last May when Netanyahu came to Washington and routed the administration by taking Israel’s case directly to Congress. It’s hard to imagine he’ll have much trouble duplicating the feat at the U.N., since the audience is essentially the same, U.S. public opinion.
“It’s a perfect venue for making Israel look like David going up against Goliath,” says Martin Kramer, the Wexler-Fromer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. While Middle Eastern and European media typically portray Israel as the bully, the optics at the U.N., with virtually everyone lined up against the Jewish state, are going to be rather different. “The Europeans,” says Kramer, “are going to be left feeling a little dirty for ganging up on Israel.”
The White House is perhaps confused as to how it wound up standing all alone alongside Israel. Put aside Obama’s not particularly warm feelings for Israel: In the administration’s view, it is not good for Washington to be seen as going it alone on any issue. It is better to work with partners and use international institutions to advance interests that America shares with the rest of the world. When this is your worldview, Israel is a nuisance. Maybe it’s not Israel’s fault, but Jerusalem is always in the middle of some scrape—now with Ankara, now with Cairo, and who knows who’s next—from which Washington must rescue it, to the annoyance of our other, much less annoying partners.
Nonetheless, the administration can ill afford a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, since U.S. policy is premised on brokering a negotiated settlement between the parties. The White House has little choice but to veto the statehood resolution if it goes to the Security Council. This will no doubt embarrass Obama, but the much larger concern is the General Assembly. A vote there would likely result in an upgrade of status, with the Palestinians becoming a “nonmember observer state.”
“The key word is state,” says Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group. Thrall explains that this would open the door to the Palestinians’ joining other U.N. bodies, like the International Criminal Court—an institution that the White House may wind up using to try Muammar Qaddafi and perhaps eventually Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The Palestinians, on the other hand, would endeavor to use the leverage of a General Assembly nod to “statehood” to sic the International Criminal Court on Israeli officials. “The last thing the inner circle of the administration . . . wants is to be sitting on the other side of the table from the Palestinians if they take action against Israel,” says Thrall.
It’s not clear that would be a good outcome for the Palestinians either. What’s worse is that Congress will almost certainly look to squeeze the Palestinian Authority’s funding, and Abbas will return to Ramallah with little of consequence to show his constituents. The question, says Thrall, is whether Abbas “can be presented with something that looks like a victory” in New York.
Dore Gold, a former Netanyahu adviser and president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, argues that there’s something more to it. “I was in a televised debate with [Palestinian negotiator] Nabil Shaath,” says Gold, “and Shaath tried to explain the purpose of going to the U.N. Part of it is simply to enshrine aspects of the Palestinian narrative.” For instance, that the territory is not “disputed” but “occupied.” “Israel,” says Gold, “has to get out there and make its case and lay out its own narrative.”
Netanyahu’s decision to go to New York to tell Israel’s story is best understood through what’s happened over the last few weeks, like the September 9 attack on the Cairo embassy. Neighbors and other regional actors are trying to score points off Israel to enhance their own domestic prestige. Accordingly, one key question is whether Abbas’s failure might give room to local adversaries, including Hamas, to launch attacks on Israel. Some security figures are readying for the possibility of a third intifada, though others suspect that any incidents will be limited in scope and intensity.
One rule of Middle East politics, says Kramer, is that “if people are expecting something to happen, it won’t.” Most of the major events of recent regional history came out of the blue—from the Israel-Hezbollah war of 2006 to the Mavi Marmara incident, and from 9/11 to the Arab Spring.
In fact, some are wondering if the U.N. bid may at last provoke a Palestinian version of the Arab Spring. Doubtful, says Kramer. “If there was going to be a Palestinian Arab Spring, it would’ve happened already. But the Arab Spring has shown that the other Arabs are not all free with only the Palestinians waiting to be liberated. Rather, the Palestinians are arguably better off than lots of others around the region. What irks the Palestinian leadership is that it hasn’t been in the spotlight for a while.”
First there was the Arab Spring, and now, with Bibi coming to New York, it looks like the Palestinian Authority still isn’t going to have the spotlight to itself.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.