Staving Off Disaster

American Mideast policy lies in shambles.

As the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly got underway Wednesday, the action on the main stage where world leaders addressed the gathering took a back seat to the furious diplomatic activity occurring in the wings. Behind the scenes, negotiations to try and forestall a diplomatic crisis over the issue of Palestinian statehood dominated the proceedings, overshadowing even the speech by President Obama, who used the forum offered by the UN to warn the Palestinians that there was "no shortcut" to statehood and that only direct negotiations with the Israeli government could achieve that goal.

The president also met separately with both Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try and jump start the moribund peace negotiations that have been stalled for months because of the continuing refusal of the Palestinians to agree to serious talks. Obama told Mr. Abbas that if the issue of statehood came before the Security Council, the US would exercise its veto.

Hillary Clinton was also meeting with both leaders in order to place maximum pressure on Abbas to either withdraw his bid for statehood entirely -- an unlikely proposition -- or agree to a compromise measure that would delay the vote on Palestinian statehood for an agreed upon length of time while negotiations were re-started.

Getting the peace talks started again is a key element in plans being offered by the so-called "Middle East Quartet" (UN, US, EU, and Russia) and France. The goal of both proposals is to delay a vote in the Security Council to prevent a chain of events unfolding if the US uses its veto to deny the Palestinians statehood. Saudi Arabia has threatened a virtual break with Washington if the US vetoes the measure, and other Arab and Muslim states would almost certainly follow suit. Our already weak position in the Middle East would further erode -- much to the benefit of Iran. It may also be the case that a US veto would ignite a violent reaction in the Palestinian territories, complicating the peace process even further.

The Quartet is pushing a proposal that would have Abbas submit his request to the Security Council, but have the vote on the issue deferred until another round of peace talks is attempted. The group would then issue a framework for negotiations and a timeline for completion. France has also proposed a delay in the Security Council vote based on starting the peace process again. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is recommending a resumption of talks in one month, with an agreement on borders in six months, and a final deal agreed to in a year. He also is proposing that the Palestinians' status be upgraded from "observer" to "non-member" status -- a vote that would only require a simple majority from the 193-member General Assembly to pass.

Abbas is resisting these efforts, largely because he has gone out on a very long limb in going to the UN and asking for recognition. Already in a weakened position at home, Abbas can't simply give up. He will need something to bring home -- something substantial -- in order to maintain his authority. Hence, the idea of allowing the General Assembly vote on granting the PA "non-member" status. Whether that will be enough to forestall his demand for an immediate vote in the Security Council remains to be seen. Reports surfaced late Wednesday indicating that Abbas would not push for an immediate vote, however, it was also uncertain whether the Palestinians had the requisite amount of support for that move in the first place.

How did it come to this? Abbas was under no illusions that the US would allow an affirmative vote for statehood to make it through the UN Security Council without using its veto. But he believed he could use the threat of anger at America from the Muslim world to get President Obama to lean on Israel and force them to offer more concessions than they already have -- especially on the settlement issue and the knotty problem of borders where Abbas is looking to denude Israel of any kind of realistic, defensible frontiers.

Obama himself gave Abbas the idea that this was possible when he said during last year's General Assembly speech that in a year's time, "we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations - an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."

Middle East analyst Barry Rubin lays out the president's confused and incompetent actions that have led to this sorry state of affairs:

By distancing himself from Israel, removing all pressure from the Palestinians, unilaterally proposing a freeze of Israeli construction on settlements, and repeatedly messing up the effort to restart negotiations, Obama made the peace process situation worse. His failure to handle properly the Palestinian UN unilateral independence bid has put U.S. policy in a terrible mess, with an American veto leading to large-scale anti-Americanism and probable violence both by Palestinians against Israel and by Muslims against the United States.

And now it appears that Obama is going to have to rely on the Middle East Quartet to pull Abbas back from the brink and, in the process, do what the president has been unable to do for more than a year: get the Palestinians and Israelis to sit down and negotiate. Netanyahu, a man with no illusions about the intent of the Palestinians, nevertheless is willing to make the effort.

On the other hand, this Wall Street Journal editorial quotes Abbas as saying, "We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years." The Journal points out, "That's another way of saying that the 'occupation,' in Mr. Abbas's view, began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and not with Israel's takeover of the West Bank and Gaza[.]"

David Goldman (aka "Spengler"), writing on his blog at Pajamas Media, suggests that "Abbas could not be more clear in his declaration that his objective is not to live side-by-side with the state of Israel, but to destroy it. What sort of concessions are supposed to appease that point of view?"

Indeed, one might see this entire exercise by the Palestinians as just one more ploy to isolate Israel. Or, in the words of the Journal editorial, it is an extension of their campaign to "to harass, delegitimize and ultimately destroy Israel."

The fact that Abbas is not serious about direct negotiations at this time is borne out by a statement by his spokesman that included conditions for restarting talks. Nabil Abu Rudeina said, "We are prepared to restart negotiations the moment that Israel stops settlement construction and agrees to discuss the 1967 lines."

The Palestinian refused direct talks the last time Israel halted settlement construction in April. And Netanyahu has continuously stated that he is willing to discuss the 1967 lines with "appropriate land swaps." Any other proposal would be suicidal for Israel, and yet, the Palestinians refuse to engage in talks, waiting for Israel to make further concessions. They are being egged on by an American president who has encouraged the belief in the Palestinians that he can wring more land and more compromises from Israel if they remain intransigent.

Barry Rubin best sums up the disaster:

What's important is the result, not whether you think this has been caused by incompetence, arrogance, a thirst for popularity over responsibility, ideology, a personal antipathy toward Israel (it shouldn't be exaggerated but it's there), lack of experience, choosing advisors badly, or ignorance among them. I don't think it's been deliberate, but what's shocking is to have a policy so bad that many do.

The president's disastrous policies and Abbas's gross miscalculation have led us to this point -- where much of the world is scrambling to save American foreign policy from a self-inflicted wound caused by the incompetence and over-arching hubris of the president.