Obama's Dilemma on UN Vote for Palestinian Statehood

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The U.S. will once again be in the difficult position of opposing a vote for an outcome it ultimately supports

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UN General Assembly / Reuters

No matter what the U.S. does at the United Nations in New York next week, a diplomatic nightmare awaits on the question of the Palestinians.

The U.S. has pledged to veto an expected bid in the 15-member United Nations Security Council allowing Palestinian membership in the U.N. Even though the U.S. supports the eventual creation of a Palestinian state and membership in the U.N., its long-held position is that that will only happen after negotiations, which are currently frozen.

However, the U.S. cannot veto a potential second vote in the 193-member General Assembly that would make Palestine a nonvoting observer state at the world body. That would afford the Palestinian state entry to join dozens of United Nations agencies and treaty groups like the International Criminal Court, where in theory it could take up cases against Israeli officials for alleged war crimes or settlement building in the West Bank.

Whether the U.S. exercises its veto in the Security Council or stands by as the U.N. General Assembly approves the resolution, the U.S. will once again be in the difficult position of having to oppose a vote for an outcome it ultimately supports: the recognition of a Palestinian state. Both Israel and the U.S. claim that unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian state could complicate the prospects of resuming long-stalled direct talks, because it does not resolve the key issues that have been obstacles to an agreement in the past.

"After whatever show we have in the United Nations is done, what will change in the real world for the Palestinian people? The answer is nothing, sadly," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N Susan Rice said at a breakfast for reporters on Monday hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "Expectations will have been raised very high, but the economy will be the economy, the situation on the ground will remain the same situation on the ground. They will not have any more sovereignty, freedom, or autonomy than they feel today."

Even if the Palestinian Authority gets U.N. recognition, there is still no agreement with the Israelis over determining the borders of a future Palestinian state, security arrangements, control of Jerusalem, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. 

This isn't the first time the Obama administration has been caught in the middle of an Israeli-Palestinian standoff. Even though President Obama historically has taken a tough stand on Israeli settlement building, the U.S. was the only country to veto a February resolution in the Security Council calling for a halt in Israeli construction in the West Bank. While the resolution contained ideas Obama himself has supported, the U.S. has long maintained that the U.N. is not the forum for such discussions. Since before and after the U.S. veto, settlement construction has continued in the West Bank and there has been no discernible progress in resuming peace talks. 

But now, with the months of pro-democracy protests in the region and political turmoil in neighbors Egypt, Syria, and Turkey, the stakes appear to be higher. Possible side effects of U.N. action on this issue include backlash against the U.S. for appearing to side with Israel over supporting the Palestinians' push for their own state if the U.S. uses its veto, and major protests in the region. In either case the U.S. Congress could decide to pull its funding from the Palestinian Authority, and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations are likely to remain in a state of paralysis.

The U.S. is continuing its last-ditch flurry of diplomacy to dissuade the Palestinians from seeking any form of action-- and urge other countries not to support the unilateral measures. Rice said the dozens of countries around the world supporting the Palestinians push for recognition at the U.N. next week must take responsibility for the potentially detrimental "real-world consequences" for Palestinians -- which could include a loss of funding and heightened unrest in the region.

Rice said there is "no question" that any resolution proposed by the Palestinians at the General Assembly "will have an overwhelming majority."

"That said, the United States-- and I-- have been working very energetically to talk to member states of all sorts about the real-world consequences of this kind of vote," she said. "This is not one day of hoo-ha and celebration in the General Assembly and Security Council and then everybody goes home. As member states that are voting on a resolution ... they have a responsibility to own the consequences of their vote."

Some Republicans in Congress have already threatened to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority -- totaling about $500 million a year--if they turn to the United Nations in their bid for recognition rather than negotiations with Israel. The potential shortfall of cash for the Palestinian Authority is particularly concerning given the news of two reports by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund foreshadowing an "acute fiscal crisis" and declining economic growth, especially if foreign donors fail to meet their commitments to the Palestinian Authority.

There's also the fear of heightened unrest in the region with the promised U.S. veto in the Security Council. The New York Times reported that the Israeli Army is holding "dress rehearsals" for Palestinian riots.

Despite the very public U.S. opposition, there's a chorus of voices in support of the Palestinians' bid at the U.N. Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal, a nephew of the king and former ambassador to the U.S., said in a New York Times op-ed on Monday the kingdom would "no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has" if it vetoes the bid for statehood. A veto could cause the U.S. to lose a key strategic ally, in addition to provoking mass anger throughout the Arab World, Faisal said. "The 'special relationship' between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people," he said.

To this, Rice said: "If our friends in Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, are concerned about the consequences of a Palestinian statehood vote ... then it would be wise for them to counsel the Palestinians to take a different course, to return to the negotiating table."

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Sara Sorcher a staff reporter (national security and foreign policy) for National Journal.

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