The Envoy

Obama faces referendum on his Mideast diplomacy

The Envoy

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An elderly man runs past flaming vehicles outside Israel's embassy in Cairo Sept. 9, 2011. (AP)

As President Barack Obama prepares to head to the UN General Assembly opening session in New York next week, two of his major foreign policy goals appear to be on a collision course. In the midst of this year's Arab Spring uprisings, the Obama administration has sought to position the United States as a champion for Arab peoples' aspirations for greater democracy and freedom. At the same time, though, the United States has been fully committed to block one key objective supported by most Arab pro-democracy activists: the petition from Palestinian leaders to achieve enhanced international recognition at the United Nations next week.

Analysts warn that the looming showdown could further diminish the United States' credibility and leverage in the Middle East--and at the very moment that Israel, Washington's closest regional ally, is becoming even more dependent on U.S. diplomatic protection. And in case administration officials needed reminding of the delicate nature of this balancing act, they got a vivid refresher course this past weekend, when Obama and his top aides had to intervene with Egypt's military rulers to help get Israel's ambassador to Cairo and embassy staff evacuated as Egyptian crowds attacked the building. (The assault on Israel's Egypt embassy came just days after another historic Israeli ally in the region, Turkey, expelled Israel's envoy, citing anger over that country's refusal to apologize for the killing of nine Turks in the 2010 Gaza flotilla episode.)

"I think President Obama is torn," veteran American Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller told The Envoy Monday. He doesn't "want to be the guy who has to oppose a Palestinian state, which is something he is very much in support of."

But if U.S. representatives are forced to veto a Palestinian state resolution at the UN Security Council next week--as they vowed to do if the measure comes before that body--"you have to wonder how much lower American credibility can get," Miller said.

Susan Rice, Obama's envoy to the United Nations, made it clear to reporters Monday that Washington is using all the diplomatic incentives and threats it can to try to dissuade Palestinians from going through with their UN plans. (You can see some of her comments on the issue in the YouTube video below.) But as Rice acknowledged at a breakfast with journalists hosted by the Christian Science Monitor Monday, the Palestinian measure is likely to win overwhelming support at the UN General Assembly--despite U.S. opposition.

"One thing I hope the Palestinian leadership is considering is the day after," Rice warned. "What will happen when whatever show we have in the United Nations is done? What will change in the real world for the Palestinian people? The answer is nothing--sadly. Expectations will have been raised very high. But the economy will still be the economy, the situation on ground will remain the situation on the ground. The [Palestinian people] will not have any more sovereignty, freedom or autonomy than they feel today."

Observers will likely interpret the UN Palestine vote as a referendum on Obama's diplomacy in the Middle East--and analysts are already predicting that the United States' credibility as an honest and effective broker in the peace process will likely take another hit.

"I think the Palestinians are going to get a big vote," said Bruce Jones, who formerly worked as an adviser in the office of the UN Middle East peace special representative, in an email to The Envoy Monday. "My view is that the vote will be as much a referendum on US Middle East diplomacy as on [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and the issue [of Palestinian statehood] itself."

"I think Israel missed a beat, here," Jones, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, continued. "They could have had a friendly state submit amendments to the eventual draft resolution, recognizing Israel as well ... Israel got so convinced it could turn this off--which was always a non-starter--that it wasted energy and didn't pursue a credible diplomatic strategy at the UN."

Former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas agreed that Israel has been pursuing an ineffectual diplomatic strategy on the UN vote.

Once it became clear the vote would proceed at the UN, "Israel had two viable options," Pinkas told The Envoy by email Monday. "To participate in drafting a different resolution based on Obama's tenets; or, conversely, to announce that ... since the UN vote is nothing but a hollow PR stunt, Israel intends to be the first to vote 'Yes' provided negotiations resume immediately thereafter."

The current Israeli government, however, rejected both approaches, Pinkas said. "That is why there was little it could have done to avert the UN circus later this month," he noted, adding, "Still, it would have been more prudent to downplay and trivialize the move rather than build up unnecessary drama."

The prospects for jump-starting another round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks anytime soon are slim--and that means the best among the bad options now before the United States is to try to help "orchestrate behind the scenes a General Assembly resolution that provides 'a soft landing' -- something that preserves a measure of unity, doesn't rule out negotiations, doesn't treat Israelis like a pariah," former American diplomat Miller said.

But if prospects for relaunched Israeli-Palestinian peace talks looked bad six months ago, they look even worse now, Miller contended.

"Developments in Egypt are--if not traumatic, pretty close to traumatic [for Israel]--and are only going to accentuate the [Israeli] public suspicion that the region is changing fundamentally," in ways that Israel finds unfavorable, Miller said. "What it will not do is to bring this Israeli government and large sectors of the [Israeli] public around to the idea that in order to address that growing isolation, Israelis have to be more flexible."

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