Web Chat: The Palestinian Vote at the UN

Shibley Telhami took your questions in a live web chat on the Palestinian vote at the UN, what it means for President Obama’s policy in the Middle East, and Arab opinion of the United States and its policies in the region.

The transcript of this chat, moderated by David Mark at POLITICO, follows.

12:30 David Mark: Welcome to the chat. Let’s get started.

[Comment From Jason C: ] Were there any surprises during the president’s speech?

12:31 Shibley Telhami: In general, the president repeated what his administration has been saying for weeks now, that the solution to the Israeli-Palestine problem is through negotiations, not through the U.N. To the extent that there was a surprise, it is how little he expressed empathy with the Palestinian conditions under occupation, even if expressed support for a Palestinian state. From the Israeli point of view, he said much of what people wanted to hear about the suffering of Jews and Israelis. That was particularly striking. He also, surprisingly, failed to mention that, regardless of negotiations, Israelis are obligated to withdraw from the occupied territories and Arabs are obligated to recognize Israel as a matter of U.N. resolutions. It was hard to miss that this more of a domestic political speech and said the minimum to rationalize a difficult US position internationally.

12:31 [Comment From Rebecca: ] How did the “Arab Spring” influence the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood?

12:33 Shibley Telhami: There’s no question that the Arab Spring impacted Palestinian politics dramatically. In the past, the absence of movement in the peace process put Abbas in a difficult position, but he was able to get some support regionally, especially from Mubarak in Egypt. The Arab Spring changed all that. The pressure was on and his move at the UN is highly popular in the Arab World, particularly in Egypt, as polls show. It became very difficult for Abbas to back down as he needed too big a fig leaf that neither the US nor Israel could provide.

12:34 Shibley Telhami: In some ways, I believe that going to the UN helped Abbas mute more opposition. The stalemate in the negotiations was not a function of going to the UN; but rather preceded it. Much of the energy that could have gone into other means of opposition turned into a rally for statehood at the UN.

12:34 David Mark: The 1993 Oslo Accords not only established an official dialogue between Israel and the PLO, but also formally put in place U.S. recognition of the Palestinian Authority. How, if at all, would UN recognition of a state of Palestine affect relations with America, legally or less formally?

12:38 Shibley Telhami: The Palestinian Authority, which was established following the Oslo Accords, clearly was seen as beneficial for the Palestinians’ pursuit of independence but also for reducing the Israeli engagement in the West Bank and Gaza. In that sense, it was seen to be mutually beneficial and the United States supported it from the outset. There are now calls, certainly in the United States, to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians pursue independence at the UN. Remarkably, the Israelis are fearful of such an outcome. You also have people in the Palestinian areas saying that the collapse of the Authority could be a good thing, as they argue that the Authority has become a fig leaf relieving Israel of its duties and commitments.

The confrontation at the UN will have far-reaching effects. Once the dust settles, everyone will have an interest in the return to negotiations and in the continuation of the Palestinian Authority.

12:38 [Comment From Jackson: ] Overall, how do you think Obama’s speech will be received in the Arab world?

12:39 Shibley Telhami: I believe it will be received negatively. There are 3 reasons why. The first is the bottom line, which is that the United States is opposing Palestinian move at the UN and although the president did not talk about “veto,” it was clearly implicit, and that is how it would be seen. He’s going against public opinion on this one.

12:40 Shibley Telhami: Second, the absence of more expressions of empathy by the Palestinians for Israelis will be noted. Third, based on public opinion polls I have been conducting since the administration came to office, the Arab public had liked the president at first, but they have lost trust in him over the past two years. They no longer really hear his words, and no matter how well-crafted his speech is, people are primarily tuning out.

12:41 [Comment From Tom: ] What reasons does the U.S. give for threatening to veto the Palestinian statehood bid? Doesn’t Obama support a two-state solution?

12:45 Shibley Telhami: The primary point that the administration makes is that ultimately the conflict between the parties must be resolved through negotiations and cannot be imposed by anyone from the outside, including the UN. That sounds fine, except for the fact that despite significant mediation efforts, negotiations have failed to produce peace since the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israelis continue to live in insecurity and Palestinians continue to live in occupation. It’s difficult to persuade people that negotiations will deliver.

There are principles that should frame any negotiations, and by now, it is well known to most what is required to reach an agreement. The president himself stated such principles last May when he explained that a two-state solution must be based on 1967 borders and agreed swaps. The UN is the forum that defines international norms. Therefore, it is hard to make the argument that the UN is not a good place to go to frame principles that would invigorate the negotiations. There is a big distance between imposing the negotiations and defining perimeters that would move them forward.

The administration is missing an opportunity by not putting forth its own resolution to the security council that is fair-minded, that puts out some of the well-known principles for a two-state solution that would help regain the faith of those who support it and would help limit what each side would do unilaterally and force them back to a constructive negotiating process.

12:45 David Mark: Israel’s government currently collects and distributes to the PA revenue collected from value added taxes and other sources. Are the Israelis likely to cut off this source of funding if the UN recognizes a Palestinian state, and what might the consequences be?

12:47 Shibley Telhami: You’re correct in pointing out that Israel controls some of the tax revenues going to the Palestinian Authority. Israelis are in a position to make the PA life very difficult. They could do that and the United States could cut off aid. The reason why they don’t do that is that it would generate opposition from the international community. Many Israelis maintain that the PA is in their best interest—without it, you have the possibility of Hamas getting the upper hand. Israelis would also be legally responsible for what’s happening on the ground – both financially and in terms of lives.

12:48 [Comment From mj: ] Does the muted response from the president reflect criticism from GOP candidates (see Washington Post Perry’s and Romney’s response to Obama’s Middle East policy printed today) and/ or is he influenced by the 2012 election? If so, what message does that send to the Palestinians and the greater Arab population?

12:51 Shibley Telhami: It cannot be ignored that the Republican candidates are trying to use the Israel/Palestine question to their advantage. It was clear that the prime minister of Israel was trying to win the support of Republicans during his speech before Congress a few months ago.

I conducted a poll last month here in the United States to see how Americans evaluate American policy toward the Israel/Palestine question. What is clear is that the majority of Americans want the United States to take neither side, but nearly half of Republicans want the United States to take Israel’s side. Among those who want the U.S. to take one side or other in the conflict, the ratio of who wants the U.S. to take Israel’s side among Democrats and Independents is 2 to 1. Among Republicans, it’s nearly 50 to 1. In that sense, it has become a Republican issue that caters to a core constituency—especially the religious right. The president will face pressure in the coming months from that direction.

12:51 [Comment From Jennifer S.: ] Why should the average American care about this? Everybody here is thinking about jobs and the economy—what does this mean to the man on the street?

12:55 Shibley Telhami: This is a really good question that is often misunderstood. Even aside from the moral issue of having Arabs and Israelis engage in conflict, there are far-reaching ramifications for the U.S. First, the U.S. is committed to Israeli security. Whenever there is a flare up or conflict, the U.S. will not sit idly by. In that sense, the U.S. will always be interested in the conflict.

Second, the U.S. has major interest in the Arab world, certainly an interest in oil, but beyond that, the region’s location and its relationship with allies in Europe. It’s clear that the Arab public sees American foreign policy largely through the prism of the Arab Israeli conflict. Whether or not there are other important issues on the horizon, they are almost always trumped by this singular issue, especially when it breaks into conflict. Now that you have an Arab public empowerment, what happens in this issue is going to play itself out in every important Arab country. We are likely to see an escalation in the coming weeks during election season.

There is a lot at stake for the U.S. That is why, since the 1973 war, it has become an active part of American foreign policy that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is itself an American interest, not merely a humanitarian gesture.

12:56 [Comment From Karen K: ] What kind of an impact will a successful vote on Palestinian statehood in the U.N. General Assembly have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both internationally and in regards to U.S. policy?

1:00 Shibley Telhami: One has to separate Security Council action from General Assembly action. The policies are very likely to have support in the GA, at least for states with observer status. They currently have observer status, but not as a state observer. That new category would make them a member of a very small club that gives them not only prestige, but also the ability to join international legal forums, such as the international criminal court where they could presumably pursue cases against Israel.
It has some implications, though limited in scope because the international legal fora are much more complex and the Palestinians’ likelihood for success is therefore limited. People argue that not much would change on the ground and Palestinian anger could develop. This is true, but Palestinian anger with the Authority and the peace process could develop regardless of what might happen at the UN if there is no progress. The confidence in negotiations is gone on both sides of the public and if anything, going to the UN may have stalled Palestinian activism against the Authority and the peace process itself and maybe even against the two state solution, which many people believe is becoming no longer viable.

1:00 David Mark: Thanks for the chat, folks.