Obama Tells Palestinians to Stay in the Back of the Bus

Israel and Palestine can never sell a deal internally without blaming outside powers for compelling them to do what is in their long term interests



President Obama's speech at the United Nations yesterday paled in comparison to the soaring, expectation raising addresses he gave early in his administration, particularly in Cairo, but also at past UN General Assembly gatherings.  The President has lost his groove.

Obama opened with FDR's line that "We have got to make, not merely a peace, but a peace that will last." This was the perfect set up line for the President to describe how the United States was going to reinvent its leadership in an increasingly complex world where the old rules are not working. 

President Obama could have described in his address a new set of global deals among the world's last era powers and ones now rising -- particularly Brazil, India, Turkey, China -- and talked about the need for responsible stakeholders in the international system to deliver on a package of rights and opportunities for citizens of the world, perhaps a new Global Social Compact that America could help design but which would need to be supported, ratified if you will, by other of the world's great powers.

That would have been something.

President Obama did give a shout out to development, to women's rights, to reaching out to those in the world who have been besieged by nature's wrath in Africa and home-grown, mankind-forged oppression.  He devoted a paragraph to the important achievements of his administration in re-setting a global commons allergic to nuclear weapons and WMD materials proliferation.  But these were scattered ornaments in a speech that lacked his previous vision and resolve.

Perhaps most disappointing is that President Obama, who in earlier years at the UN chastised Mahmoud Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu, and George Mitchell for not getting more quickly on a constructive peace track, who felt that achieving an Israel-Palestine two state deal was of such strategic significance to the United States that he made it one of the very first out-of-the gate priorities of his administration, has not only offered nothing new to break the Israel-Palestine negotiations deep freeze but has acquiesced to the very narrative that on the negotiations that Israel embraces.  For Israel at the moment, doing nothing is best.

Obama continues to parrot the line that peace can only be achieved between the "two parties", that only they can really bring this global ulcer to a close, when they decide to negotiate.  The fact is that the status quo of frozen negotiations is benefiting the dominant, settlement-expanding Israel -- and the US, in promising to veto at the UN Security Council Palestine's bid for official state recognition, is playing guarantor to one side, undermining the aspirations of others on the other side of the equation.  What if the US had said to Kosovo -- no statehood, no recognition from the US until you resolve all of your ongoing issues with Russia?

Obama's position on this is dangerous in another sense as well.  Obama -- who looked to so many early in his rock star style rise to the Presidency as a leader on the level of a Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or Mandela -- has assured the rise of Hamas, the legitimation of violence in pursuit of Palestinian political goals, by yet again showing that peaceful, non-violent moderates like Mahmoud Abbas ultimately get nothing -- even if they play the role of the "good Palestinian," the one who listens to his masters, who doesn't get too disturbed when humiliated at Israel's border check points and at UN Security Council meetings. 

Abbas was not kidnapping Israeli soldiers nor firing rockets to generate political leverage in favor of getting his country's dilemma back on to the roster of global concerns.  This week he is doing what Gandhi did to the Brits, embarrassing the world as Gandhi did to the then globally sprawling United Kingdom for its hypocrisy and inhumanity.  Abbas is using peaceful means to move his cause, playing by the rules, and actually taking the same track to attempted Palestinian statehood that the Israelis used.

And Obama is going to say no -- rejecting Palestine's bid at the UN Security Council.  It is 2011 of course.  2012 will be an expensive year of political campaigning and this makes riling up some donors in the Jewish American community politically complicated. It should be noted that some enlightened Jewish Americans support a two state solution, peace, and even Mahmoud Abbas' play at the United Nations.

If this was 2013, Obama might be in a different groove -- but by then Palestinian and the broader Arab temperature may be such that they ultimately decide the two state track is folly -- and much like Turkey giving up on its European identity aspirations -- decides to pull back and subject a recalcitrant Israel to never-ending harassment and violence, assuring that Israel ultimately becomes a state of hard-edged, security-demanding Apartheid, all while the Palestinian demographic edge inside Israel's borders booms while the Israeli Jewish population growth slows and perhaps even declines.

Obama is assuring the further emasculation and perhaps final demise of Palestine's moderates.  Obama is also treating the Israelis and Palestinians as if they are on equal footing, equally able to concede to each other's demands.  What Obama doesn't get is that a substantial portion of Israel's population loves not having a deal and never wants one.  They are OK with a peace process to nowhere -- but that is not acceptable for the less-endowed, less-powerful Palestinian side.  Hamas is in the rejectionist corner as well, seeing its fortunes rise as earnest efforts at peace go nowhere.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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