Palestinians protest Trump plan at UN, but has world moved on?

Howard LaFranchi

For decades, the international community has largely deferred to the United States’ lead in the effort to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Think President Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords, the (President Bill) Clinton Parameters, and President George W. Bush’s Annapolis peace conference.

But now that President Donald Trump has unveiled his long-awaited “deal of the century” that aims to resolve the conflict once and for all, the global response looks different.

Gone is the broad acceptance of the U.S. lead, and the near-uniform lining up of the international community behind U.S. efforts at Mideast peace. But also gone is a fervent dedication to the Palestinian cause as a top international priority, particularly among Arab countries.

At the same time, the weight and influence of the U.S. in the region and the world remain such that no peace initiative from an American president is going to be summarily dismissed.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas learned this Tuesday at the United Nations in New York, where he had hoped to culminate an appearance before the Security Council – in which he blasted the Trump peace plan as one-sided and unfair – with a resolution demonstrating global rejection of the plan.

“This is an Israeli-American preemptive plan in order to put an end to the question of Palestine,” Mr. Abbas told the council.

The Trump plan “is like Swiss cheese, really,” the Palestinian leader added, holding aloft a map of the series of small islands within Israeli territory that would constitute a Palestinian entity under the American proposal. “Who among you will accept a similar state and conditions?”

And indeed, all of the council’s 15 members (five permanent members and 10 rotating seats) except for the U.S. expressed reservations about the Trump peace plan, with most members saying they remain committed to a negotiated settlement that results in a viable Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Still, things did not go as Mr. Abbas had hoped. Once it became clear that a resolution intended to underscore American isolation over the Trump peace plan was garnering only mixed support, the resolution was first watered down, and then delayed indefinitely as resolution sponsors Tunisia and Indonesia scrambled to try to secure support.

Already a hint at this lingering global reluctance to stand in opposition to an American Mideast initiative (and to risk drawing the ire of the peace plan’s namesake) had come last week. Tunisia’s well-respected U.N. ambassador, who helped fashion a resolution that was sharply critical of the U.S. peace plan but who also linked that criticism to the U.S. president, was abruptly sacked.

“Tunisia’s ambassador to the United Nations has been dismissed for purely professional reasons concerning his performance and lack of coordination with the ministry on important matters under discussion at the U.N.,” the Tunisian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

But diplomatic sources at the U.N. said that in fact the ambassador, Moncef Baati, had been fired because the resolution he spearheaded had specifically criticized the Trump peace plan as being in violation of international law. Tunisia has a new president, Kais Saied, who did not want to start his tenure facing the wrath of the U.S. president, sources added.

Three years into the Trump presidency, a widespread international understanding of what getting on the U.S. president’s wrong side can mean played some role in the Security Council’s reluctance to go on record condemning the U.S. plan, some analysts say.

“Trump’s reputation as a counterpuncher really has deterred many actions that could provoke him to take negative or retaliatory steps,” says James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “I’d say the Tunisian decision [on its ambassador] probably reflected that.”

Still, Mr. Phillips and others say that what the lack of fiery support for Mr. Abbas reflects first and foremost is the waning of international interest in the Palestinian cause.

“It’s sad for the Palestinians, but they just aren’t the do-or-die issue for countries that they once were,” says Michael Oppenheimer, a professor of U.S. foreign policy and international relations at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “Clearly this issue has become kind of a nuisance for many countries, particularly the Gulf states that once stood solidly behind them,” he adds. “It’s no longer central to their diplomacy or to their pursuit of national interests.”

Other priorities, from tending to broad strategic relationships (with the U.S. and even Israel) to confronting an expansive Iran, have supplanted the Palestinian issue at the core of Arab and Gulf counties’ interests, Professor Oppenheimer says.

At the same time, Heritage’s Mr. Phillips says many countries look at other challenges in the region – the Syrian civil war, with its millions of refugees; the war in Yemen; upheaval in Libya; the destabilizing presence of the Islamic State – and the result has been a weakening fervor for the Palestinian cause.

“The impact of all these other conflicts is that the Palestinians’ plight is not perceived to be as bad as it used to be,” he says.

U.S. officials say privately that this week’s Security Council session on the Trump plan for resolving the conflict turned out better than they might have expected. They note, for example, that the council had voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution condemning the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 – forcing the U.S. to veto the measure.

By comparison, they take the failure of a resolution condemning the Trump plan as a victory and a sign of things going in the direction of the Trump “vision.”

Still, NYU’s Professor Oppenheimer says that does not mean the world likes what it sees in Mr. Trump’s “deal of the century.”

“Clearly this is not a peace plan. Let’s not pretend that it is. It’s a reflection of facts on the ground,” he adds, “the kind of treaty you’d expect at the end of a war with a clear winner and loser.”

Many countries in the region and in Europe may not like that reality, Professor Oppenheimer says, but they have “moved on” to other priorities and interests.

“Any opposition we hear now [such as that voiced at Tuesday’s Security Council session] is lip service,” he says. “But frankly, I think it’s been lip service all along.”

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