The UN’s Palestine Vote: Why the Panic?

Here in Washington, negative reactions to the United Nations’ vote to admit Palestine as a non-member state have ranged from silly and infuriating to downright dangerous. The hysteria surrounding this UN vote may seem strange, even bizarre, to outsiders, but here in Washington it was expected.

The rhetoric was harsh and the actions proposed by lawmakers were extreme and, if passed, could prove dangerous. But why all the panic? Instead of simply shrugging off their responses as “business as usual”, it is useful to examine the unspoken assumptions that underlie these reactions.

Here’s one example: the “news crawl” running on one of the networks during the UN debate read “U.S. aid threatened by UN vote”, as if the statement were logical and complete in itself, requiring no further explanation. Unstated, but taken as a “given”, was the connection between the “aid” and the “vote”, and that is the hold that pro-Israeli hardliners have over appropriations in the U.S. Congress

As if to make this point, in the days and hours leading up to the vote, several U.S. Senators leapt into the fray. First on board were a group of Republicans who offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would not only cut U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority(PA) by 50% should they seek to change their status at the U.N.; the amendment would also cut by 20% U.S. assistance to any nation that voted for the Palestinian resolution. This measure is dangerous and could threaten U.S. relations with many important allies around the world. It is also silly and poorly drafted, since as our friends at Americans for Peace Now point out–”it is not the PA that is moving to change their status at the UN. The PLO is the group that has brought the resolution to the international body. And the PLO is not a recipient of any U.S. aid. There is another Republican amendment that proposes to cut all U.S. support to the UN should that body vote to change the status of the Palestinians.

Finally, there is a bipartisan amendment that would ban U.S. aid to the Palestinians should they become involved in any action before the International Criminal Court. This is an obvious and ham-fisted attempt to shield Israel from any action by the Court. A second provision in the same amendment would order the closure of Washington’s PLO mission unless the President, on a regular basis, is able to certify to Congress that the Palestinians are engaged in “meaningful negotiations” with Israel, without ever defining what is meant by “meaningful”.

“Expert” commentators have also reacted to the UN vote, largely indulging in banal expressions of what has come to be accepted “conventional wisdom”. On the one hand, they have pointed out the obvious–”that the “vote will change nothing on the ground” or that “peace will only come through negotiations”. They have also issued warnings against the Palestinians taking “unilateral actions”, cautioning that passage of the statehood measure would have “dire consequences”, “risk exacerbating tensions” with Israel, and “create an impediment to the peace process”. I am tempted to digress and ask “what about Israeli unilateral actions?” or “what peace process?” All these warnings take for granted the unstated but accepted assumption that any Israeli reaction to the vote must be seen a logical consequence of any Palestinian assertion of their rights.

The most infuriating comment came from the Israelis in reaction to the announcement that France and other European nations would vote for Palestine. This they lamented would deny Israel the support of what they termed “the moral majority”–”by which they meant “white”, “Western” nations. The racism suggested in this formulation is so obvious and disturbing, and yet was reported without comment in the New York Times.

As all of this was playing out this week, my mind hearkened back 24 years ago, when working with the Jesse Jackson for President campaign I had the opportunity to lead the first ever debate on Palestinian rights at a political convention. In the lead up to the debate, the party leadership did everything they could to block our effort. I was warned “if you persist, you will destroy the Democratic Party” and “you will never have a place in this party again”. One prominent pro-Israel Democrat actually said “I’m scared. Nothing like this has ever happened before”.

Their hysteria and fear were real. But what troubled me most was that my opponents would never verbalize or admit the source of their panic and fear. It was, in my way of thinking, irrational. To them it was perfectly rational – but because it sounded so awful, they would never verbalize the reasons for their panic. Some were motivated by the crass political calculation that anything that demonstrated their less than total support, not for Israel, but for whatever the most hard-line pro-Israel voices wanted, would somehow compromise them, causing them to suffer unspoken harsh consequences. For others, it was an issue of power and control – as in, “how dare the Arabs assert themselves and demand equal treatment and the right to speak without first seeking our approval?”

This same “logic” played out at the UN this week, to the same effect. The world spoke, but the U.S. proved itself incapable not only of acting in concert with the world, but of admitting the reasons why it could not. All of this, sadly, makes clear the fact that when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the U.S. remains the critical player, but because of the constraints our deformed politics has imposed on this and past Administrations, Washington appears incapable of fulfilling that role.

And so the vote happened. The U.S. and Israel self-isolated. The Palestinians win, but nothing changes–”because the U.S. has not yet changed or been able to break the hold of its still unacknowledged bonds.