The stunned expressions on Palestinian delegates’ faces as they listened to President Obama bluntly reject their bid for statehood at the United Nations last Wednesday was proof of just how far they had allowed themselves to believe in their own hype.
After years of imbalance, in our time Israel’s innumerable faults in its dealings with the Palestinians have become common knowledge in the west’s media, its campuses, and its political elites. Palestinians actually believed that they had driven a wedge between Israel and its American backers.
Obama, also, is an American president who has gone beyond all others in standing up for Palestinian rights and aspirations, who is openly antagonistic to Israel’s leadership, and who has frequently stated his goal of a fast track to Palestinian statehood.
Yet when the cards were down, President Obama demolished years of Palestinian self-deception (and weeks of Palestinian self-congratulation) when he absolutely denied their call for recognition, and added that “for the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.”
The speech demonstrated Obama’s support for Israel’s requirements when he stated that “the Jewish people – in their historic homeland – deserve recognition and normal relations with their neighbors.” And dismissing the Palestinian move at the United Nations he added: “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Thus, it seems President Obama reminded Palestinian leaders of a few core facts that they seem to have forgotten.
First, they must remember that Obama takes into account the opinions of the American “man on the street”, and these opinions are still very much sympathetic towards Israel. Over the years, Americans have come to a better understanding of – and an empathy towards – the plight of the Palestinians, but this has not translated into a lesser support for Israel. Yes, Americans feel that Palestinians should get their own state, but no, the Americans do not believe that it must come at Israel’s expense.
US-Israeli ties have developed into a unique, complex and deeply rooted relationship over the past six decades. The two nations share common cultural values and historical identities, not to mention the extensive military and political cooperation.
Americans have generally sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians and today, Israel still enjoys a vast support in the American society. They may have differences over certain policy issues, including the issue of settlements, but these are in no way divisive differences.
President Obama knows that he cannot walk directly counter to the expressed wishes of his electorate. Despite all the hype about the “Israel Lobby”, the opinion polls tell us (and the President) that the average American still values Israel and sides with it.
Therefore, be he as pro-Palestinian as possible, an American President cannot make a move against the wishes of his people and act against Israel unless – and this is the big “if” – unless he is certain that such a move would work out very quickly to give a peace agreement that the American public would approve of.
This means that if the Palestinian and Israeli prime leader were to sit with him in Camp David, Obama would have no problem in leaning very aggressively on Israel and demanding concessions for the Palestinians, provided that he could walk out afterward with a peace agreement to wave in front of his country’s voters, telling them that he had had to take harsh measures against their friend but that these lead to a good result.
But at the United Nations, there was no such paper to be waved – only further humiliation for Israel to be gained. If Obama had gone out against his voters’ inclinations without any tangible pro-Israel as well as pro-Palestine result, he would have paid a heavy political price.
No less important, we must remember that a few important changes have happened in the Middle East since Obama first moved into the White House. The Arab Spring, a momentous event, has also seen an outpouring of the rage that the Arab nation feels towards Israel, and this has left Tel Aviv deeply concerned. In this case, the Americans share Israel’s concern with their own fears of the possible rise of ‘new Iran’. They are now more likely to endorse Israel’s security concerns, and they are now less likely to inhibit Israel’s security demands.
And so we come to New York and see Palestinians stunned to hear President Obama warning the UN assembly against “shortcuts” for Palestinian statehood… It seems, however, that in their forgetfulness of reality they have also forgotten another hard fact: To the White House, their move looks like treachery and a deliberate attempt to insult President Obama. There is usually a price to pay for such behavior, especially in the unsteady days of the Arab Spring, when the US cannot afford to appear weak or foolish in the Middle East.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, the Palestinians accepted the two-state solution since 1988. In the years since, several American presidents gave their personal backing to peace proposals to finalize this agreement, and they saw first-hand how the Palestinians never came back with serious replies to these moves.
Former Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert says he offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a return to the 1967 borders and a “fair demographic land arrangement”. In an interview last year, Olmert said Abbas never responded. “I found Abbas to be a fair partner, opposed to terror,” said Olmert. “What happened? That is the question of all questions, which I would answer if I could. “
The strategy of avoiding a final deal until better terms are offered is a sound one, but it involves making the American President look foolish or naïve, which is to be avoided during the Arab Spring. The move to bypass negotiations altogether and go to the UN is, in American eyes, nothing less then throwing a shoe in their face for the entire world to see, and a stab in the back to their president.
Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad saw the danger and opposed the UN move because of the potential of American retribution, which he feared could lead to lowered financial assistance and knock down the emerging Palestinian economy, but he was not listened to.
The Palestinian leadership now hopes it is not about to learn a painful lesson from the American President, about what happens when you insult the only superpower in the world.
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