Israel, Obama, and Abbas’s U.N. Challenge Over Palestinian Statehood

The Security Council vote could be a chance to make up for decades of foreign-policy missteps in the Middle East. John Barry on the showdown.

Henry Kissinger was angry. He had spent months of shuttle diplomacy trying to persuade Israel’s then–prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, to pull back from the Golan Heights territory the Jewish state had won from Syria in an epic tank battle two years earlier, during the 1973 war. But in the end, Rabin told Kissinger that although he saw the logic, he could not agree so soon to a move that everyone in Israel would see as a risk to their security. The most Rabin said he could accept was an interim deal postponing the hard questions. And so, after delivering the bad news in person to Anwar Sadat at the Egyptian president’s summer residence in Alexandria, Kissinger retreated for an hour to let off steam.

In the privacy of a shaded veranda on that blistering August afternoon, at a chalet on Alexandria’s poshest beach, the American secretary of state expressed himself bluntly. “Israel is a nation so traumatized by war that its leaders have lost the capacity to make sound judgments about their country’s long-term strategic interests,” he told the beach house’s owner, Mohamed Heikal, as the three of us shared an elegant and off-the-record meal. (The food was catered by Heikal’s personal chef at the veteran Egyptian journalist’s Alexandria apartment and chauffeured to the chalet.) Kissinger’s memoirs, written years after the fact, would offer a more emollient assessment of why the Golan Heights effort failed, but the memory of his exasperation comes back vividly as the U.S. and Israel brace themselves for the imminent U.N. showdown on Palestinian statehood.

For the past 60 years, the West has been operating on borrowed time in its dealings with the Arab world. With the arrival of the Arab Spring, that era may now be ending. As always the pressing issue is how Israel coexists with its neighbors. The Palestinians’ decision to request full U.N. membership from the Security Council might look like a doomed gamble—after all, President Obama has warned that the United States will use its veto power to block any such bid. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his advisers are not fools. Abbas is seeking a Security Council vote precisely because he wants to force the U.S. to confront a broader question: as the Arab world tries to reinvent itself, where does America stand—will it cling to past policies, or will it dare to foster that still fragile hope of reform and freedom? The repercussions of the Security Council vote will extend far beyond the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

We’ve been here before. Sixty years ago an earlier Arab Spring just might have flowered, but the British and Americans played an inglorious role in its withering. After the defeat of the Arab onslaught against infant Israel in 1947–48, rotten old regimes throughout the region began toppling. In Egypt an able colonel, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was persuaded by the Egyptian Army’s humiliations in the Negev to assemble a group of plotters known as the Free Officers, who overthrew King Farouk’s corrupt monarchy in 1952.

Egypt seemed to be on the verge of great changes. The country had a vibrant parliamentary system, an educated urban middle class, and a lively press that all but defied censorship. Egypt could have become a democracy and a Western partner. Instead, the country became a military dictatorship—and, for close to 20 years, a client state of the Soviet Union.

Those were Nasser’s choices, but abysmally short-sighted U.S. and British policies helped propel him into that tragic dead end. Then as now, it was a conflict between new hopes and old interests. The dominant Western powers viewed Nasser through the prisms of colonialism and the Cold War. Britain was aghast at the loss of its near-viceregal sway in Egypt. At the same time, the Eisenhower administration feared that Nasser’s opposition to the Baghdad Pact—an organization of primarily Muslim nations cobbled together ostensibly as a regional equivalent of NATO—posed a threat to Western defenses in the Cold War. (Nasser, a convert to the Non-Aligned Movement, saw no Arab stake in the Cold War. “Why should I worry about a man with a tommy gun 2,000 miles away?” he asked.)

The break came swiftly. In 1956, Washington rescinded World Bank funding for Nasser’s No. 1 economic priority: the building of the Aswan Dam. Nasser promptly retaliated by nationalizing the French-and-British-owned Suez Canal Company, whose vast revenues had made it practically an autonomous power within Egypt. In response, Israel, France, and Britain colluded to invade Egypt, hoping to topple Nasser. It was a harebrained scheme, and President Eisenhower sealed its fate by interposing the U.S. Sixth Fleet between approaching British warships and the port of Alexandria. He then demanded that Israel withdraw to the boundaries stipulated in the armistice agreement that ended the 1948 war. (These remain Israel’s legally sanctioned borders.)

Eisenhower’s intervention could have paved the way for imaginative diplomacy. Nasser had hopes for a U.S.-Egyptian entente, and the documentary record shows that Mideast experts in the State Department passionately supported the idea. But the opportunity was frittered away. Nasser, convinced that the West wanted to bring him down, looked to the Soviets for support. The winner was Israel, anointed as the West's ally while Arab regimes sided themselves with Moscow. (Isser Harel, Israel’s spymaster in its early years, would talk to reporters during his long retirement. The country’s leaders rejoiced at Nasser’s estrangement from the West, Harel would recall; they had feared for the future should Nasser become a Western partner.)

The Cold War ended two decades ago, and Sadat, who took power after Nasser’s death in 1970, had the courage to initiate a cold peace between Egypt and Israel after the 1973 war. And yet Israel continues to seem too uncertain to make what Kissinger called “sound strategic judgments about its long-term strategic interests” that afternoon in Alexandria. Also too divided: a tidal wave of immigrants from the old Soviet Union has given a harder edge to Israel’s politics—and deepened the Jewish state’s disdain for the Palestinians. After Menachem Begin took over as Israel’s prime minister in 1977, I asked his private secretary how much the Belarus-born Begin knew about the Palestinians. “About as much as you’d expect in someone from a Russian ghetto,” he replied.

Peace has been deferred year after year, the reasons always shifting, while the proliferation of Jewish settlements across the West Bank—what Israel calls “facts on the ground”—have made an accord ever harder to envisage. It’s not all Israel’s fault. Bill Clinton, who came closer than any other U.S. president to brokering an Israeli-Palestinian deal, only to see Yasir Arafat renege, later remarked that the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman was too much in love with his own image as a resistance fighter ever to make peace. Since Arafat’s death in 2004, Washington has spent large sums of taxpayers’ money to train up the Palestinians’ internal security forces and support international programs to mentor a new generation of Palestinian politicians and officials. The result is that Abbas can now credibly claim the underpinnings of a poor but viable state—even as he goes before the Security Council to defy the leader of the country that made that possible.

U.S. policy in the Middle East has long boiled down to a squalid bargain: support for Arab dictators as long as they abstained from challenging the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Now the Arab Spring offers America the chance—fragile, uncertain, but potentially the best opportunity in more than a generation—to break out of paralysis: to side with the future rather than the past. In Egypt, in Libya, in U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford’s courageous stand against the vicious crackdown in Damascus in Syria, America has shown a commitment to the future. But the Arab world sees Palestine as the test: the U.S. vote in the Security Council will be taken as proof of where America really stands.

As the 2012 election approaches, domestic politics may prevent Obama from supporting Abbas’s resolution in the Security Council, but even a carefully explained abstention would send a powerful message. America’s Founding Fathers did not regard their independence as negotiable. How can President Obama demand that the Palestinians accept any less?