Wednesday, September 14, 2011

America’s Palestine Problem

As the 66th General Assembly opens, the Palestinian Liberation Organization is set to request that the United Nations admit Palestine as a member. Because only states are able to be members of the United Nations, such admission would require, necessarily, that Palestine be a state. And, therefore, admission would serve to recognize Palestine’s statehood. It is likely that, should the United States be unable to wrangle enough votes on the Security Council to delay action on the Palestinian application, the U.S. will be forced to veto the U.N Security Council Resolution granting Palestine’s admission as a U.N. member-state.

Normally, the alignment of American and Israeli interests renders a U.S. veto of a resolution that contravenes Israeli policy goals unworthy of comment. However, because the Arab Spring has provided the United States with the opportunity to improve its standing in the Arab world—and because the United States has actually availed itself of this opportunity—vetoing Palestine’s application for statehood is a singularly unpalatable proposition.

One can imagine few more effective ways for the United States to squander its newfound position in the Arab world than by vetoing Palestine’s application for statehood. There is no better way for the United States to transition from liberator of Libya and friend of free Egypt back to oppressor of Arabs than by denying Palestine’s statehood.

Beyond merely losing standing, however, such action is likely to breathe life back into the al-Qaeda brand. That brand has suffered tremendously in the Arab Spring. Largely, the devaluation of al-Qaeda as a brand has both to do with Arab (and Muslim) rejection of terrorism and violence, as well as the stunning success of the Arab Spring’s alternative narrative—namely, that non-violent protest movements seeking dignity and humanity can bring down the same repressive, autocratic regimes that al-Qaeda has targeted but wholly failed to dislodge. It has been this counter-narrative that has provided the United States with space to change its perception in the Middle East. By standing with the protestors in Tahrir Square, with the NTC, and ever so slowly with Syrians, the United States is seen to be siding with oppressed rather than with the oppressors, as it has since at least Mossadegh. But, by vetoing Palestinian statehood, the United States will in the span of time required to cast a vote, squander a wealth or regional political capital it has been unable to garner since the Suez crisis. It will be a tremendous waste and one that is likely to haunt U.S. policy in the Middle East for at least a generation.

The only hopeful signal coming out of the U.N. is that the United States is working feverishly to avoid the vote altogether. While this is no substitute for unwillingness to veto Palestinian statehood, it at least signals that U.S. policymakers are aware of the stakes associated with this particular veto. But, as a good friend recently opined, this may be an example of old policy for a new world—old policy that leads to the same old problems for the United States.

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