Obama’s Campaign Speech at the UN

Is Obama giving up?

My reactions to Obama’s speech at the UN went as follows:

  1. Obama said nothing relevant and used the UN as a platform for a reelection speech
  2. The part of the speech on Israel/Palestine should solidify Obama’s Israel credentials
  3. Obama moved from a man calling for peace (last year at the UN) to one concerned only with Israeli interests

Well Aaron David Miller has a piece out on Foreign Policy at the moment suggesting that Obama should stop expending effort and political capital on an Israel/Palestine agreement and simply worry about the domestic woes that are bringing down his poll numbers as reelection season kicks off. Miller throws his hands up (due to a number of reasons) and suggests that peace now is impossible and that the president should pander to his domestic constituencies that will matter come reelection time – ie, veto the Palestinian initiative, hold strong on Israel and work on regaining the trust of American voters:

A veto, should it come to that, will be bad for American interests. The president’s credibility in the Arab and Muslim world is already low. The United States is neither admired, feared, nor respected as much as it needs to be in a part of the world vital to its national interests. I’m not even sure that the Israelis respect the United States anymore. But at the moment, an unproductive fight over a U.N. resolution that means little, criticizing a close ally in Israel, or a risky initiative that alienates an important domestic constituency is just not a vital national interest. If you’re a Democrat, frightened by the possibility of a Republican victory in November 2012, then increasing the chances of Obama’s reelection is a vital national interest. And even for those Democrats who happen to dream of a Middle East peace, reelecting Obama next year — not trying to cobble something together now — should be the primary goal.

On balance, the president is right to attend to his domestic political interests at a time when there is little or nothing he can do to pursue the Arab-Israeli process. After all, that peace process, however grim its prospects may be, will be around for some time to come; Barack Obama may not.

It seems as though this is the path Obama has chosen. The Palestinian initiative will be voted down by the US in the UNSC and the US will largely be discredited in the region, but Obama will be able to argue to Jewish/Israel supporting voters that he stood behind Israel. (Though 45% of Americans support the Palestinian move – hell, 70% of Israelis do – and domestically, republicans will continue to use the issue to paint the president as anti-Israel regardless of his actions.) In one sense I agree with Miller: supporting the Palestinian move (or at least being somewhat even-handed in his speech) would do nothing to actually bring a Palestinian state into existence and would antagonize a powerful group of Americans. However, by completely pandering to Israeli interests, one year after standing in the same forum and declaring that a Palestinian state must be achieved, Obama has proven to be weak, easily-manipulated and beholden to lobbies and foreign interests. Despite that humiliation, Obama’s cheerleading for Israel at the UN was a wise move for a president seeking reelection.

That being said, Obama’s complete 180 from last year was despicable and will have a variety of negative consequences for the US and Israel. Ironically, the inevitable failure of the UN initiative (in that there will be no Palestinian state next week) may be the first of many signs that a two state solution in no longer possible. Changing paradigms from two states to one state has been popular in Palestine for some time, but has been greatly eschewed by the US, Israel and the international community. Negotiations between Israel and Palestine have failed for years (the only agreement – Oslo – became a means to continue the occupation) and now Palestinian efforts through international institutions (ie how Israel was created) are likely to fail.

Moreover, the Netanyahu government seems content with the status quo. It is hardly pressured by the United States (anymore) to stop its settlement activities and is able to easily deflect all criticism stemming from the occupation. Whether this is a wise strategy for Israel is not the question (it isn’t.) What is important is that if Obama takes Miller’s advice and hunkers down and focuses only on reelection by unquestionably supporting Israel, the Palestine question will be largely removed from the table, allowing the status quo to continue.

(Status quo is hardly the correct term as it implies a continuation of the same. Israeli settlement activities, though, are continuing, thus changing both the political and geographical relationship between Israel in Palestine.)

Moreover, the Abbas push for statehood – first through negotiations, secondly via the UN – will have failed, leaving many Palestinians wondering whether the Abbas strategy will ever bear fruit. In Gaza, this loss of faith may well result in a boost in popularity for Hamas – who did not support the UN initiative and has also has refused to negotiate with Israel, arguing that negotiations would be futile. In the West Bank, where Palestinians are forced to endure the constant creep of Israeli settlements, the failure of both negotiations and the UN bid will perhaps push more people to support the creation of one binational or democratic state.

In any event, those that oppose Abbas in Palestine will be able to use the UN bid as fodder against the PLO chairman. For Israel and the US, this is troublesome as Abbas and Fayyad have put enormous effort into the security effort for Israel and seem to be genuine about making peace with Israel along the 1967 borders. As Abbas loses credibility at home, the vacuum will inevitably be filled with those pushing for the reestablishment of historic Palestine or a one-state solution to the conflict.

Should Obama leave the Israel/Palestine issue alone while he focuses on reelection (ie, continues to give more speeches like the one at the UN) he will be empowering the extremists in Israel (Netanyahu/Lieberman) and their many American supporters. Without pressure from the US, the Netanyahu government will not be inclined to make any concessions for peace and will likely continue the settlement project until it is clear that no independent state can retain sovereignty in the West Bank (perhaps that Rubicon has been passed.) Before Obama’s UN speech, it was increasingly clear that the president was struggling to pressure  Netanyahu to do anything at all, but at least Netanyahu’s intransigence was visible to the world.

If Obama does decide that it is time to take a break from the peace game, he will be creating a vacuum that will give the Netanyahu government free reign to destroy any possibility of a two state solution, and discredit the peaceful overtures of Abbas, leaving Hamas and others that support a one state solution as the only Palestinians with political credibility. The decision to shoot down Abbas yet again may very well be looked back on as a major shift in the way the world views this conflict.

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