January 26 will mark the three-month deadline for Palestinians and Israelis to submit their opening positions on mutual borders and security. The deadline was set by the international Quartet—the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. It followed the decision last September of a frustrated Palestinian Authority to pursue independent statehood through the United Nations, after 18 years of futile negotiations with Israel.
In response to that strategy, the United States led an aggressive diplomatic campaign to thwart Palestinian application for statehood, insisting that a state could only be established through direct negotiations with Israel. To make the process more credible, the Quartet intervened with its request for clarification on borders and security. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has submitted a proposal, warning that the Palestinian Authority “will take measures” if no progress is made by the deadline. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was quoted as having asked Abbas not to end recently initiated talks hosted by Jordan after the Quartet deadline.
The Obama administration must avoid a new diplomatic confrontation this week. Continued U.S. interference will not stop the Palestinians’ quest for a state. Instead, it will only exhaust American diplomatic resources, deplete Washington’s political capital and accelerate the decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East.
In September, the Obama administration intervened to prevent voting on the Palestinian application for U.N. membership. This involved President Barack Obama writing to the Bosnian Presidential Council to encourage a vote against Palestinian statehood, while exerting similar pressure on Colombia, Nigeria and Gabon. Clinton dispatched special envoys David Hale and Dennis Ross to pressure the Palestinians into withdrawing their applications. The U.S. Congress blocked $200 million in aid to the Palestinians and later penalized UNESCO, which had recognized Palestine as a member, by withdrawing $60 million in funding to the organization.
Ultimately, for the Palestinians, U.N. recognition is a strategic option, regardless of how long the process may take to achieve. The Palestinians realize that though their state may not be recognized soon, the U.S. will eventually have to face the same reality that other governments have faced in the past after unsuccessfully blocking U.N. recognition of independent states.
In particular, the U.S. should learn from the experience of the former Soviet Union. Moscow used its veto 51 times to obstruct the U.N. membership applications of countries such as Kuwait, Mauritania, Vietnam, North Korea, South Korea, Libya, Cambodia, Nepal and Ceylon. Nonetheless, these countries ultimately gained U.N. acknowledgment. In fact, it took Japan until 1956 to join the U.N. after three Soviet Union vetoes, the first of which came in 1948. It seems, then, that the process of Palestinian recognition has only just begun.
The U.S. must also recognize that its veto privilege in the Security Council comes with responsibilities. Excessive use of the veto has a high cost in terms of U.S. credibility and the U.N.’s ability to function. This crisis has demonstrated the U.S. failure to act as a responsible global leader in established international organizations.
With the Palestinians set to take “new measures” after Jan. 26, the U.S. must begin realizing that it is making a mistake in bowing to the pressure of the pro-Israel lobby by blocking Palestinian membership. The power of Israel’s supporters in Washington was clearly on display last year when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a standing ovation from the U.S. Congress. In the words of New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, the ovation was “bought and paid for by the Israeli lobby.”
The Palestinians, on the other hand, have been engaged in serious reforms, which the United States has failed to acknowledge. Abbas has demonstrated a strong commitment to nonviolence and has rejected what he has called “a third intifada.” His prime minister, Salam Fayyad, has been recognized internationally for his efforts in building strong Palestinian state institutions.
Though it may not fully meet U.S. expectations, Hamas has also been responding to the changes sweeping the region. It has accepted to become part of the Palestine Liberation Organization and to engage with Fatah in a broad reconciliation process, which will make agreements with PLO more representative of the Palestinian people. Reflecting the changes in the Palestinian ranks, Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ politburo who was seen as a more hard-line figure, will reportedly not seek re-election. Hamas has been reported to be on “the brink of renouncing armed resistance and moving to a policy of nonviolent resistance to Israel,” according to an analysis in Jane’s.
Avoiding a diplomatic confrontation after Jan. 26 requires that the U.S. take note of the changes in the Middle East, specifically in the Palestinian territories, and alter its approach accordingly. Pressuring Palestinians to go back to futile negotiations will not work. Abbas has already taken a great risk by engaging in the Jordan-hosted talks while Israeli bulldozers are still operating on Palestinian land. Returning to the old, failed approach will exacerbate the problem, and further erode American effectiveness in the region.