Obama at the UN on Israel-Palestine: Good Politics, Poor Diplomacy

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His address was like so much of the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian conduct in the peace process -- restricted by politics at home and unlikely to bring the parties together

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas listens as U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the 66th United Nations General Assembly in New York / Reuters

If you'd wanted to gauge how strained relations between the Obama administration and the Palestinian leadership have become, all you'd need do is watch the shaking heads of the Palestinian representatives at the United Nations General Assembly during the U.S. President's speech there on Wednesday.

Obama reiterated the American commitment to a two-state solution and the creation of an independent Palestine, both established U.S. policy. Rhetorically, however, his speech recognized most of the core elements of the Israeli narrative but virtually none of the Palestinian one.

Obama spoke about Israel being surrounded by enemies and powerful states that threaten its destruction. He expressed sympathy for Israelis being attacked by rockets and suicide bombers, and neighboring children being "taught to hate them." He invoked the Jewish narrative of exile, oppression, and the Holocaust.

All of which is fine, of course. But what was missing was virtually any acknowledgment of the Palestinian narrative, except for the right to statehood. He made no mention of the occupation, the settlements, the 1967 borders, the refugees, Jerusalem, or any other aspect of the Palestinian narrative or concerns.

Unfortunately, that he made such a deeply unbalanced speech was little surprise. It comes
in the middle of a crisis in relations between the Obama administration and the Palestinian leadership, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, that is being intensified by the Palestinian insistence on seeking some form of recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN.

American opposition to the statehood bid is driven in part by a desire to protect the U.S.-brokered, bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, although it has effectively broken down in recent years. It's also based on reasonable observations that such negotiations are ultimately the only way to fully resolve the conflict. No other party is seriously vying with the United States for the role of broker. Moreover, Israel would be deeply wary of any other way forward, given that it only really trusts the Americans.

The Obama administration isn't on particularly warm terms with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu either. Many in the administration regarded his last visit to Washington as a series of affronts, perhaps the most serious of which was Netanyahu's public lecturing of the U.S. president in a speech to Congress that seemed to make common cause with the same Republicans who are seeking to unseat the President in November. But the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel remains, essentially independent of political relations between the two governments, as Obama's nods to Israel's concerns in his speech reflect.

Indeed, Obama's UN address was at least as much driven by domestic political considerations as by frustration with Palestinian leaders, Israeli leaders, or the stalled peace process. Republicans are ruthlessly harassing him from his right on this issue. Texas Governor Rick Perry, currently the highest-polling GOP candidate for the presidential nomination, recently accused him of "appeasement" of the Palestinians, despite his tough stance on their UN initiative. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasted no time in denouncing the President's UN speech for not threatening, as she has, to defund the Palestinian Authority, the relevant U.S. commitments to the UN, and international agencies that work with the Palestinians, should they persist with the UN bid.

Though Obama can claim credit for the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the ouster of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Republicans sense an opportunity to harass him from his right on Israel and to try to diminish his Jewish donor base, if not the reliably Democratic Jewish vote.

It's not unusual in international relations that politics trumps policy. But this is happening, to an unusually and very dangerously high degree, among the Palestinians, the Israelis, and the Americans at the moment.

Abbas' UN bid is, to a large extent, likely driven by considerations about his own legacy as well as by the ability of the secular, nationalist leadership in Ramallah to hold off political challenges from Hamas. A great deal of the Israeli intransigence is driven by an open competition between Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for leadership of the Israeli right (this political stand-off may also be the single biggest factor explaining Israel's bizarre refusal to apologize to Turkey over last year's deadly flotilla incident). A politically empowered minority is driving Israel's most self-defeating policies, above all the expansion of profoundly provocative settlements.

And then there are the Americans. The election season is inhibiting the administration from any bold new moves to restart talks, redefine the terms of negotiations, or pressure Israel to make the necessary steps towards a meaningful compromise.

Obama's UN speech may well have been good politics, but it wasn't especially good policy. It will almost certainly be widely misread in the convulsing Arab world as evidence that the U.S. remains part of the problem -- rather than the key to the solution -- of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The speech did nothing to help broker a compromise at the UN, which all parties badly need, including the United States, and would be in everybody's best interests. It won't help dissuade the Palestinians from pursuing an aggressive course at the UN, no matter how risky or unwise that might be. And it won't do anything to help restart negotiations.

It's understandable that the President is exasperated with both parties and deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of having to cast a veto in the Security Council against Palestinian statehood. Obama made those sentiments extremely clear today. It may have been an accurate reflection of the mood in the administration and in Congress, and it might even help Obama get reelected. But it didn't do U.S. policy goals any favors.

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Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a weekly columnist with The National and NOW Media, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the American and Arab media.

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