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Domestic Politics Produce Three-Way Collision at United Nations

The collision this week over Palestinian statehood at the United Nations has been coming since Israel and the Palestinian Authority hit an impasse in negotiations a year ago and U.S. President Barack Obama was unable to get them back to the bargaining table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama arrived at the UN this week, each constrained by his own domestic political interests and conflicting views about peace talks. The Palestinians are seeking UN recognition of a state comprising the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem -- the territory Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War.

“It is almost inconceivable that the president will be able to avert some kind of clash at the UN,” Aaron David Miller, a veteran U.S. Mideast peace negotiator and a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, said in an interview.

For Abbas, the move to the UN is an effort to promote Palestinian nationalist aspirations without backing down on his demand for a freeze on new Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a precondition for negotiations with Israel.

The stalemate in those talks and the popular uprisings in the Arab world make Abbas vulnerable to a rebellion among Palestinians, who are frustrated with the lack of progress toward statehood, and to militant anti-Israel groups such as Hamas, which won control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Israeli Perspective

Netanyahu faces opposition from parties in his coalition government to halting construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Citing Israel’s security needs, he has sparred publicly with Obama over whether the pre-1967 boundaries of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem should be the basis for negotiating the borders of a Palestinian state, with land swaps to take account of major Jewish settlements and security needs.

Obama, in his address yesterday to the UN General Assembly, said an eventual peace deal depends on Israelis and Palestinians “who must live side by side,” not a “short cut” though a UN resolution on a Palestinian state.

“One year ago, I stood at this podium and I called for an independent Palestine,” Obama said. “I believed then, and I believe now, that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that a genuine peace can only be realized between the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves.”

‘No Short Cut’

“The question isn’t the goal that we seek -- the question is how do we reach that goal,” he said. “And I am convinced that there is no short cut to the end of a conflict that has endured for decades.”

Obama repeated his opposition to the Palestinians’ current bid for UN membership when he met late yesterday with Abbas, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in New York.

The Israeli and Palestinian leaders are scheduled to address the UN General Assembly tomorrow.

Obama, too, has domestic political interests. A U.S. failure to veto a Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood, if it comes to that, would jeopardize Democrats’ support from Jewish voters, as well as energize evangelical Christians allied with the Republicans. That prospect was highlighted by the Democrats’ loss of New York’s heavily Jewish 9th congressional district to underdog Republican Bob Turner in a special election Sept. 13.

‘Dangerous Move’

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry fed into those fears, saying Sept. 20 that Obama emboldened Palestinian leaders to seek UN recognition by demanding compromises from the Israelis.

“Simply put, we would not be here today at the precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive, arrogant, misguided and dangerous,” the Texas governor said.

Given the Israeli and Palestinian political situations, Miller said, there may be little that Obama might have done to defuse the conflict over Palestinian statehood.

Still, he never put his own plan on the table to test the two sides. Also, Miller said, Obama made several tactical errors, notably raising Palestinian expectations by pursuing an Israeli settlement freeze and then backing down in the face of Israeli objections.

“He allowed his rhetoric and his good intentions get way out ahead of reality,” Miller said.

Settlements Issue

U.S. officials “made a big deal out of settlements and they were spurned by” Israel and “that was terribly embarrassing,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a nonpartisan organization in Washington that advocates a negotiated two-state solution. “They’re equally frustrated by both sides and have adopted a ‘pox on both your houses’ attitude.”

In addition, the administration is now preoccupied with domestic issues, principally efforts to revive the economy and reduce the deficit.

Miller said that neither Abbas nor Netanyahu is likely to begin negotiating on the key issues of borders, security, the status of Jerusalem, control of water and the rights of Palestinian refugees until and unless the benefits of an agreement outweigh the risks.

Israel made its key decision a year ago, when Netanyahu chose not to extend a 10-month freeze on new construction in West Bank settlements. The Palestinians had demanded the freeze as a precondition for final status talks, but agreed to begin discussions under U.S. pressure and in the final month of the freeze.

Israeli Politics

Extending the freeze would have triggered a conflict between Netanyahu and members of his governing coalition who grudgingly had supported the temporary freeze, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and the religious Shas party.

Netanyahu might have survived their defections by bringing the main opposition Kadima party into his coalition, but instead he resisted pressure from the Obama administration to extend the freeze, said Mark Heller, principal research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Even if Netanyahu believed that Abbas was bluffing on reaching a negotiated deal, he could have easily called that bluff by extending the settlement freeze and bringing Kadima into the government,” Heller said. “Netanyahu basically chose domestic political considerations over diplomacy, and that helped bring us to the Palestinian statehood bid.”

Missed Opportunity

Palestinians and some U.S. officials believe the Israeli leader has failed to reward the Palestinian Authority for the risks taken to confront terrorism and improve Israel’s security, said a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the subject publicly.

Another administration official who also requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter said that looking back, the Palestinians rejected an historic opportunity when Yasser Arafat, then the president of the Palestinian Authority, walked away from a comprehensive deal put on the table by President Bill Clinton at Camp David in July 2000. That may have been the best offer Palestinians would ever get, the official said.

No Faith in Israel

Palestinian leaders say they feel compelled to push for statehood through the UN because they have lost faith in Israel’s willingness to negotiate a deal unless Palestinians have bargaining power by elevating their status in future talks.

Critics of the high-stakes strategy, including Ibish, say a showdown could have been averted if Abbas had dropped his demand for a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks after Obama was unsuccessful in persuading Netanyahu to extend the limited moratorium.

Meeting with reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Sept. 9, Abbas said he had had three meetings during the past year with Israeli President Shimon Peres, 10 with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and numerous conversations with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the representative of the Quartet -- the U.S., the UN, the European Union and Russia -- that is trying to help broker a Mideast settlement. Those discussions, Abbas said, failed to narrow the gaps enough to resume peace talks.

Netanyahu met yesterday with Obama and thanked him for “standing with Israel” in supporting direct negotiations, rather than the Palestinian resolution.

“I think the Palestinians want to achieve a state in the international community,” he said, “but they are not prepared yet to give peace to Israel in return.”

Obama said that “recent events in the region remind us of how fragile peace can be and why the pursuit of Middle East peace is more urgent than ever.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in New York at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net; Calev Ben-David in Jerusalem at cbendavid@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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