By Josh Gerstein
As President Obama struggles domestically to lift the U.S. from its economic doldrums, he will head into an international furor next week at the United Nations, where critics say a Palestinian drive for statehood is highlighting the administration’s muddled Mideast peace strategy and America’s diminished power on the world stage.
The Palestinians’ drive for statehood looms large over the United Nations General Assembly meeting, which will bring Obama to New York for three days starting Monday. In pushing forward with a U.N. resolution recognizing a Palestinian state, Palestinian leaders are thumbing their noses at the U.S., which has repeatedly warned against the gambit and pledged to veto any such measure presented to the U.N. Security Council.
Despite intensive diplomatic efforts, American officials have yet to find a formula to avert the showdown and the potentially explosive consequences that could follow greater Palestinian recognition at the U.N.
The confrontation threatens to further dim the prospects for restarting the peace process and throw the Arab world into an uproar, but it could also undermine Obama’s standing with a vital Democratic Party constituency – American Jews. The moment of high anxiety comes as Republicans and even some of Obama’s Democratic supporters in the Jewish community argue that he has needlessly roiled America’s alliance with Israel. That claim gained urgency on Tuesday, when Republican Bob Turner’s criticism of Obama’s Israel policy helped him defeat Democrat David Weprin in a special congressional election in New York City.
“This has been one giant root canal for Obama. It’s really painful to watch,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator under President Bill Clinton.
Though the situation remains fluid, Palestinian officials have said they expect to present an official request for U.N. recognition as a state to the Security Council before Obama addresses the General Assembly on Wednesday. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is set to speak Friday.
“I believe the Palestinian side still would like to do it early next week, so it can be voted on during next week’s meetings,” Maen Areikat, the top Palestinian diplomat in Washington, told POLITICO Thursday.
For Republicans, the U.S.’s apparent inability to head off the expected fracas at the U.N. feeds the narrative of a president in over his head.
“It is a reflection of incompetence as much as anything else – compounded by weakness and indecisiveness,” said John Bolton, a U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under President George W. Bush. “There’s very little evidence until the past few days, maybe the past week, of a serious diplomatic campaign to stop this thing. That inaction, I think, was a signal to the Palestinians and others that the U.S. was at best indifferent.”
Bolton said international news coverage is unflattering to Obama and the U.S. “You’re left with the headline: ‘U.S. administration pleads with Palestinians not to proceed.’ That’s ridiculous,” he said.
In 1989, Bolton said, the U.S. moved aggressively against a similar attempt by the Palestinians. Then-Secretary of State James Baker said any U.N. agency that enhanced the Palestinians’ standing would lose U.S. funding. Obama has refrained from similar threats. “If you want to be taken seriously on a matter like this, you’ve got to act serious,” Bolton said.
Other analysts agree that U.S. leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the region has waned, but they differ over who or what deserves blame.
“America is neither admired, feared, nor respected in the Middle East and Muslim Arab world to the degree it needs to be,” said Miller, now with the Wilson Center. “Is Obama responsible for that? No, he is not, but I would argue he made his own situation worse.”
Much of the decline in authority stems from developments such as the spread of the Internet, U.S. financial struggles and dependence on oil imports – all of which are largely “beyond the capacity of any administration to fix,” Miller said. But he said the president has displayed a hubris that has infected U.S. foreign policy.
“All of that was made worse [by] his own sense of self as a transformative political figure,” Miller said. “He raised expectations through his formidable powers of expression on the Arab-Israeli issue. … He thought that by coming out, talking tough, and the change of president in conjunction with his own moral authority, his own power to know what was right – that message would somehow combine to make him successful.”
“What I think he found is none of this mattered, really,” Miller said.
James Zogby, an Obama supporter and president of the Arab American Institute, said U.S. clout abroad has diminished – but he places much of the blame on the Bush administration for its handling of the war on terror and the effects of protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We still see ourselves as a city on a hill – and we’re not,” Zogby said, alluding to a metaphor repeatedly used by American presidents. “That’s not how the world sees us. … After Iraq and Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and black sites and torture and everything that happened with Palestine that we turned a blind eye to, we’re just not there any more,” Zogby said at a Washington forum this week organized by the National Security Network.
Yet Zogby faulted the Obama administration for threatening to veto Palestinian statehood and for the U.S.’s tough tone in response to the Palestinian plan. “What’s frustrated me is not just that we’re going to oppose it, but we’re working so aggressively to oppose it. It’s like rubbing their noses in it,” he said.
White House officials dispute the notion that U.S. influence internationally has eroded under Obama.
“We believe that the approach the president has taken has strengthened our position, has enhanced our stature, and increased our ability to act collectively, around the world, in ways that protect and enhance U.S. interests,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said Thursday.
A prominent Jewish leader close to Obama, Chicago attorney Alan Solow, said the worst that can fairly be said about the president’s Mideast strategy is that he has not brokered the peace agreement that has eluded American presidents for decades.
“I would just say in response to all the second-guessers and critics that the U.S. has been working with the parties in the Middle East – since 1948, at least – to try to achieve a peaceful resolution which will allow everyone there to prosper and Israel to live safely and securely,” said Solow, who recently stepped down as head of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “It’s easy fodder for critics to say, ‘Well, Obama hasn’t gotten this done,’ or ‘This technique didn’t work.’ … He has tried and made, I think, a bold attempt to move forward earlier in his presidency than any of his predecessors, and for that he deserves credit.”
But even some of Obama’s closest allies acknowledge the administration’s attempt to jump-start the peace process by pressing the Israelis to halt settlements on the West Bank was an abject failure.
“I never thought it would work, and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in April.
European officials reportedly are trying to draft alternate U.N. resolutions that could avert the looming crisis, but one expert said the Obama administration has refrained from blessing that effort – probably to avoid criticism in the U.S. that it is encouraging a Palestinian effort the Israelis view as deeply misguided.
Administration officials have “been concerned that the perception that they’re working behind the scenes to reshape the resolution would be interpreted, I think, as weakness by the Republicans,” David Makovsky of the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy said at a House hearing Wednesday. “That actually has led to them stepping back and maybe not having the influence that they could in reshaping the resolution.”
Or, as Miller put it: “Why pick a fight with Israel, and for what? This close to an election and with Republicans looking for ways to hammer him?”
Of course, the administration or others could still head off the Palestinians’ maneuver and perhaps even coax the parties back into negotiations. This week, the U.S. sent two high-level envoys – David Hale and Dennis Ross – back to the region for a last-ditch effort to do just that.
Obama also reiterated his public criticism of the Palestinians. “Going to the United Nations is a distraction, does not solve the problem. This issue is only going to be resolved by Israelis and Palestinians agreeing to something,” he said Monday. “What happens in New York City can occupy a lot of press attention, but it’s not going to actually change what’s happening on the ground until the Palestinians and the Israelis sit down and agree to border issues, to security issues, to how to deal with Jerusalem, how to deal with issues like right of return.”
The Palestinians, for their part, blame the administration for taking no meaningful action against Israel over its failure to halt settlement activity.
“When the U.S. confronted the stubbornness of the Israeli government and prime minister, they just gave in and gave up. They did not use the leverage they had,” Areikat told reporters Tuesday at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor.
As the U.N. vote approaches, Palestinian leaders are also trying to use Obama’s own words to promote their statehood bid. They are running radio ads that quote Obama’s speech to the U.N. last September, when he expressed hope that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”
Miller said it’s fair to fault Obama for grandiose rhetoric that inflated expectations. But the core reason why the peace process remains stalled, he said, is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are willing to compromise.