American peace emissary David Hale and presidential adviser Dennis Ross met on September 7 with PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and Chief Negotiator Saeb Erekat and threatened them in no uncertain terms with dire consequences should the Palestinians pursue their statehood quest at the United Nations. Some of those threats are frightening, not just for Palestinians but for anyone interested in Israeli-Palestinian stability: deterioration in Palestinian Authority-United States relations and withholding of American funds and other support for the PA would indeed be disastrous.
One other threatened "consequence" could only make me smile: The UN route, Ross and Hale intoned, would "destroy the peace process".
What peace process? The one Washington has failed to promote for two and a half years, leading to its demise and catalyzing the Palestinian UN initiative?
Taken together, both the serious and the funny threats reflect the bankruptcy of US policy toward Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Even if we accept the American admonition that the UN route is "not an option" and will have serious consequences, will punishing Abbas, the PLO and the PA for going to the UN improve matters after the fact, or make them worse by undercutting Palestinian moderates? And even if the US miraculously succeeds in pressuring Abbas to back off from the UN and return to negotiations, do those talks have the slightest chance of success?
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that the US will really follow through on its threats. President Barack Obama has already cautioned Israel not to withdraw resources in a way that would harm Palestinian security efforts.
The Obama administration has added insult to the injuries it is inflicting on the peace process by pressuring leading European countries, too, to oppose the Palestinian UN statehood bid and to avoid negotiating with the PLO the parameters of a "win-win" resolution of the sort I have been advocating in these virtual pages for months. To their credit, some Europeans have refused to bow to Washington. But all in all, by failing to achieve a unified position regarding the Palestinians UN bid, the European Union has once again demonstrated its political weakness in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This apparently leaves us with the following sorry reality as the PLO’s date with the UN approaches. The combination of American pressures and European indecision may be moving the PLO leadership to opt for a minimal "Vatican status" achievement at the General Assembly that falls short of full statehood. Conceivably, the Europeans will insist that the General Assembly resolution contain clauses that mitigate in favor of future peace efforts, such as a commitment to negotiate all outstanding differences bilaterally rather than take them to the International Court of Justice where the only outcome can be further dangerous isolation of Israel. The PLO will, under this scenario, acquiesce in European requests because the support of a majority of the EU is important to the Palestinians and because the Europeans will commit to pressuring Washington and Jerusalem not to "punish" the Palestinian Authority financially.
But if the damage is that minimal, one might ask, why have I termed this outcome "sorry"?
Because any resolution or even bypass of the current UN dilemma that essentially returns the parties to a non-existent negotiating table to discuss a non-existent peace process prolongs and even exacerbates a dangerous reality on the ground. And it ignores the important messages embodied in PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to opt for the UN route: the Oslo-based final status process has outlived its usefulness, and a new, state-to-state paradigm that prioritizes the 1967 issues of territory and statehood over the more stubborn and older "narrative" issues of refugees and holy places represents a unique opportunity to advance achievable solutions and better manage the intransigent issues.
The emerging reality of the current UN crisis is a reminder that the United States alone holds the keys to serious international involvement in a Middle East peace process. But it is also a statement of failure–based on lack of understanding and political weakness–on the part of the Obama administration. Instead of leveraging the Palestinian UN initiative into a "win-win" decision that balances Palestinian statehood with achievements and safeguards for Israel and advances peace and stability, we will return from the UN to a situation of no-peace, no stability and no productive negotiations.
Accordingly, the next 14 months of American diplomatic paralysis–coupled with critical developments in the Arab revolutionary wave, Netanyahu government intransigence and settlement-building and Palestinian political fragmentation and weakness–could prove doubly dangerous for overall Israel-Arab stability.