Palestine at the U.N.

Choosing Decline In The Mideast

Peter Beinart on how the American Jewish community's objections to the Palestinian U.N. bid reduces America's influence in the Mideast.

Do the leaders of the American Jewish establishment realize how badly they lost last night? And do they realize how much they brought that loss on themselves?

Think about it. The organized American Jewish community relies for its power on American power. No matter how much influence you wield over U.S. policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that influence ultimately relies on the fact that the U.S. itself wields influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Luckily for the American Jewish establishment, since the Cold War’s end, America’s influence has been enormous. It has been enormous because other potential outside powers, from Turkey to Russia to France, have believed that only the United States could broker a deal between the two sides. They’ve believed that because they’ve thought that only the United States could convince Israel to accept a viable Palestinian state.

Do you see the problem? American Jewish influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relies largely on American dominance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. American dominance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relies on America’s influence over Israel. But the American Jewish establishment, especially in the Obama years, has helped prevent America from wielding much influence over Israel, at least as regards the Palestinians. In May 2011, with the Palestinians preparing to seek statehood at the United Nations Security Council, President Obama proposed negotiations based upon the 1967 lines plus land swaps. He did so, in part, because he feared the Palestinian U.N. bid would undermine the near-unilateral external control of the conflict the U.S. has enjoyed for roughly two decades. Yet Obama’s bid to maintain American dominance failed because it relied on his ability to get Benjamin Netanyahu to accept his terms for renewed negotiations. And Netanyahu, with enthusiastic American Jewish communal support, loudly rejected them.

But last year, the Palestinians only went to the U.N. Security Council, where America managed to block the statehood bid. So this year, the Palestinians modified their goal and went to the United Nations General Assembly, where the U.S. wields far less power. And this year, the Obama administration didn’t even try to convince the Netanyahu government to derail the Palestinian bid by embracing the 1967 lines plus swaps parameters. In her statement opposing the Palestinian initiative, United States ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice didn’t even bother restating them. And the Palestinians, having found a venue beyond American control, won overwhelmingly. Not a single European power joined the United States in voting no.

It’s unclear how much the Palestinians’ victory at the U.N. General Assembly will ultimately matter. It certainly doesn’t, by itself, change America’s status as the most important outside influence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by far. But every year since Obama and Netanyahu came to power, American influence has declined. The Palestinian U.N. bid isn’t the only evidence. You can also measure it by the increased willingness of Middle Eastern governments like Egypt, Turkey and Qatar to break the U.S. quarantine on Hamas. Sooner or later, it’s likely key European governments will break that quarantine too.

The best way for Obama administration to stem this downward trend would be to restart serious peace talks. But that’s unlikely if this Israeli government won’t consent to the parameters that have framed serious peace talks in the past. So far, there’s zero evidence the Obama administration will push it to do so. And the American Jewish establishment is a big part of the reason why.

The organized American Jewish community is like a powerful union in a faltering company. In the long run, the union is better off taking less for its workers so the company can gain market share, and thus do more for its workers. But in the short run, it’s better off acquiring as much as possible from the company while accelerating its decline.

When it comes to American power in the world, conservatives like to say that “decline is a choice.” Yes, it is. And rarely has that choice been on display as painfully as it was last night.