Showdown at the U.N.?

Showdown at the U.N.?

September 23rd, 2011 in Opinion Times

Unless there is an unanticipated development, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to submit a Palestinian application for membership to the United Nations today. Though the fate of that application seeking creation of a Palestinian state is uncertain, its submission dramatically changes the dynamic in the Mideast. It also signals an erosion of U.S. influence in the region and a setback for President Barack Obama.

Obama has made Mideast peace a centerpiece of his foreign policy since the earliest days of his administration. He's cultivated friendships and alliances in the region and around the globe to promote that goal. His interest and his work, however, have failed to move the peace effort forward.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in fact, have not had meaningful talks for a year. And given the political situations in the Palestinian territories and Israel, any quick resumption is unlikely.

Both Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have taken positions that please supporters at home but that are inimical to resumption of the talks. That, in turn, has pushed Obama into a corner. He's no longer able to promote compromise and cooperation. He had to choose a side.

He did so Wednesday in an address at the United Nations, forcefully stating both support for Israel and rejection of the Palestinian gambit for statehood. His stand earned praise from Israel and its supporters in the U.S. and abroad, but it stirred unrest in Arab nations and disquiet among some U.S. allies. The speech, moreover, did nothing to resolve the impasse in the Mideast or to derail the expected application for Palestinian statehood.

Obama said he believes statehood would delay, not enhance, the peace process, and he's probably correct. Still, Israeli refusal to end settlement construction in occupied territories leaves Abbas with almost no choice other than the U.N. route.

He's under pressure from his people -- and other Arabs stirred by nascent democracy movements in the region -- to be free of what they consider the Israeli yoke. Netanyahu refuses to discuss Palestinian statehood until his country wins recognition from Arab militants and has guarantees about security. He, too, has a point. Israel remains a nation surrounded by enemy nations that refuse or are unable to stop terrorists from launching rocket or other attacks against its citizens.

The resulting stalemate has prompted Abbas' U.N. initiative. It's certain to spur action. U.N. officials can't say how long it might be before the Security Council takes up the Palestinian petition. When it does, the United States is certain to veto it, even though that will create significant ill will in the Mideast and elsewhere. Obama has little choice other than to order a veto given the political realities and U.S. presidential politics.

The likely next step would be to move the application before the U.N. General Assembly, where support for Palestinian statehood is substantial. A positive vote would create a Palestinian state, but it would not provide a ready mechanism for resolving the issues that would still divide Israelis and Palestinians.

There would be some obvious changes, though. Sovereignty confers certain powers as well as responsibilities. A Palestinian state likely would lose much of the foreign aid that currently flows to Palestinians from the U.S. and its allies. Without it, Abbas and other leaders there would be hard-pressed to maintain services and build the institutions and infrastructure that are the foundations of nationhood.

There is growing international agreement that creation of a Palestinian state will occur. When and in what circumstances that will happen are the sticking points. Bringing the issues directly to the United Nations puts a spotlight on the parties and policies involved, but it won't bring resolution to the long-term problems in the region.

What is required are good-faith talks between Israelis and Palestinians on issues that have not changed in years -- security guarantees, the drawing of borders, the fate of refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

The president was correct to say Wednesday that "there are no shortcuts" to Middle East peace. But if the current machinations at the United Nations can provide an avenue to renewed Mideast peace talks, some good might yet come from such high-stakes diplomatic brinksmanship.