The Obama administration’s focus on stopping Palestinians from gaining statehood recognition at the United Nations has diverted U.S. attention from the possible fallout from the showdown in New York -- a breach with Arab allies and a spark for violence in the Middle East.
U.S. officials have invested so much diplomatic energy in pressing Palestinians to drop their UN bid and lobbying 150 nations to oppose it that there has been little planning to contain blowback on American interests from disappointment and anger in the Arab world, according to three U.S. officials who weren’t authorized to speech publicly on the subject.
“I’m worried about the day after” Abbas’s appeal for statehood at the UN is seen to be thwarted or downgraded, said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. Though no one wants a violent confrontation in the Middle East, “that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.”
A similar concern was expressed by a retired former head of Israeli Defense Intelligence, General Amos Yadlin, now a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a private think tank.
“The law of unintended consequences is going to really work hard in the coming months,” warned Yadlin, who said the fight over the UN bid could result in the end of the peace process, a “third intifada” uprising by Palestinians, or worse. “The whole Middle East can go on fire” from Arab anger, he said.
As it became clear this week that Abbas would go forward, the U.S. began consultations aimed at heading off potential violence. That included talks involving Lieutenant General Michael R. Moeller, the U.S. security coordinator to the Israel- Palestinian Authority, an administration official said yesterday. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plan to meet in New York today with Persian Gulf allies for talks that will include the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Israeli police bolstered forces around the country by several thousand officers as security was heightened before Abbas’s UN speech, anticipating Palestinian demonstrations following the Muslim midday prayers and continuing today and tomorrow.
Before the speech, the Palestinian Wafa news agency reported that one Palestinian had been shot dead in West Bank clashes with Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army said in an e- mailed statement that a death may have occurred among three people who were hurt when Israeli security personnel used live fire to stop rioting by Palestinians that followed rock-throwing between Israeli civilians and Palestinians.
Abbas, who has urged restraint by Palestinians, made his public appeal at midday before the General Assembly, saying that the time has come for a “sovereign and independent homeland.” The Palestinians still want a negotiated accord with Israel, which he said “frantically” continues to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
“We adhere to the option of negotiating a lasting solution to the conflict in accordance with resolutions of international legitimacy,” he said. “I declare the Palestine Liberation Organization is ready to return immediately to the negotiation table.”
Shortly before his address, Abbas handed the membership application letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
U.S. officials acknowledge privately that the intense diplomatic push to avert such a public showdown has made it difficult to prepare a diplomatic Plan B beyond pressing anew for peace talks. That reflects what has been a persistent hope that U.S. and European diplomats would persuade Abbas to withdraw his UN bid, said the three U.S. officials who spoke separately.
For a year, the U.S. has unsuccessfully urged Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations over disputes that have blocked a peace accord for decades: Palestinian borders, Israeli security, the rights of Palestinian refugees and the sharing of Jerusalem as capital of Israel and Palestine.
President Barack Obama told the General Assembly on Sept. 21 that the Palestinians’ UN effort harms chances for Israeli- Palestinian talks. The U.S., consistent with its longstanding commitment to Israel, made clear it would veto a Security Council resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood.
Obama and Clinton met Abbas separately in New York on Sept. 21 and failed to persuade him to shelve his bid for full statehood, administration officials said. U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters after Obama’s meeting with Abbas that “just as we have been very clear about what our position is,” Abbas has “been very clear what his intent is, which is to go to the Security Council.”
Administration officials said they recognize that American opposition to the Palestinian bid may hurt U.S. standing among Arabs and cooperation by friendly Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. A July 2011 Zogby International poll for the Arab American Institute Foundation in Washington, conducted in six Arab nations, found approval for the U.S. and Obama already at a record low in the region, in large part because of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In five of the six countries surveyed, the U.S. was viewed less favorably than China or Iran.
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor and former adviser to the U.S. mission at the UN, said the so-called Arab Spring democracy movements appear to have intensified anti- American sentiment.
“In the age of Arab revolution, Arabs continue to see the United States largely through the prism of the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, only more so and with more and more consequences,” he said.
Arab leaders, for their part, have become vulnerable to popular uprisings that have unseated leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. That means greater pressure on U.S. allies such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to distance themselves from the U.S., said Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and former assistant secretary of state for the Middle East.
It isn’t surprising that “domestic and regional pressures will lead to a more independent foreign policy” by Arab allies such as the Saudis, said Murphy, a scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington. “In the Arab world, the Palestinian issues do loom larger than many in the administration think.”
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to Washington, wrote in the New York Times on Sept. 12 that U.S. influence and alliances will suffer if it vetoes Palestinian statehood in the Security Council.
“Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region,” Prince Turki wrote. “Moreover, Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has.”
Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, said in a brief interview in New York that U.S. and Israeli opposition to the Palestinian UN resolution is “bad for Israel, bad for the U.S.” because it hurts the Arab world’s hopes for a peaceful solution.
Diplomats from several other Arab and Gulf states, who spoke on condition of anonymity because their diplomatic talks were private, said they told their American counterparts that the campaign against Palestinian recognition will fan anti- American and anti-Israeli sentiments and may force leaders to distance themselves from the U.S.
They warned that Iran and Syria may exploit the situation to rally militants in the Palestinian territories, Persian Gulf nations, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, encouraging them to demonstrate, incite violence or mount terrorist attacks, said a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about diplomatic communications.
Even without the statehood fracas, Obama has burned though much of his early political capital in a region now stirred by Arab Spring movements, said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, the Qatar branch of the Washington- based think tank. The Obama administration, he said, has somehow “managed to alienate both sides in the Mideast -- the Saudi rulers think he’s pro-democracy and the democrats think he’s pro-regime.”
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