The Israel-Palestine U.N. Statehood Vote Igniting the Mideast: Behind the Scenes

An explosive U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood looms in September. Leslie H. Gelb tells the story of feverish maneuvering by Netanyahu, the Palestinians, and the White House to go to the brink without a lasting breach.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) President Obama speaks at a Town Hall Meeting Apr. 2011 (Photo: L to R: Jim Hollander / pool / Getty Images; Rex Features / AP Photo)

Almost certainly, the United Nations General Assembly will vote in September to grant statehood to Palestine, thus legally removing it from Israeli authority. Almost every U.N. member will vote “aye.” Israel will reject the vote because such a Palestinian state would include half a million Israeli settlers living there unprotected. The United States cannot void the statehood resolution because its veto applies only to U.N. Security Council decisions.

This story of a vote foretold should not be dismissed as the usual diplomatic gamesmanship with little or no consequences. The stage is being set for calamity: The high risk of Palestinian riots to fully claim their state, followed by very tough Israeli crackdowns—adding fire to the unexpected and unpredictable popular upheavals across the Middle East.

According to American, Israeli, and Palestinian officials, the tales within counter tales begin with an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on May 24. Boehner acts as if the idea of inviting “ Bibi,” as the prime minister is universally known, was his own. But the facts indicate that this most-sought-after event was initiated at Bibi’s behest. Now, the White House couldn’t say no and risk an open rupture with Israel’s supporters, so officials there unhappily went along.

The Obama administration saw the “invitation” as a power play by Bibi to head off new and tough U.S. demands on Israel, and particularly to try to corner the White House into backing Israel in the September U.N. vote. That seems to be precisely what Bibi had in mind as well, but—and here’s one of the many new twists in this saga—he had no clear idea of what he would say to Congress. Indeed, the U.S. side can’t seem to figure out what to say either, or what strategy to adopt overall at this time. The only ones who appear to know their hand are the Palestinian leaders. They intend to stand pat, hoping that the pending U.N. vote will force critical Israeli concessions without the Palestinians having to lift a compromising finger. Mind you, the Israeli and American governments are talking to each other behind the scenes constantly, trying to discover the other’s thinking without divulging their own. At this moment, however, there doesn’t seem to be much to discover.

Back in Jerusalem, Bibi is planning how to generate such a strong embrace by Congress in his address that President Obama will fear abandoning him.

Dan Ephron: The Wrath of AbbasBack in Jerusalem, Bibi is planning how to generate such a strong embrace by Congress in his address that President Obama will fear abandoning him. At the same time, he doesn’t wish to publicly confront and thus alienate Obama. Israelis feel they’ve offered major compromises over the years, with nothing in return from the Palestinian Authority headed by President Abbas. Bibi seems inclined, contrary to his right-wing coalition partners, to speak of a return to the 1967 borders with land swaps to protect Israeli settlements. He won’t give a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and he wants the PA to accept Israel as a Jewish state with a very limited right of Palestinian return to Israel. Further, Israel believes it must have security agreements to limit sharply the armaments and military activities of a Palestinian state.

But Bibi is unlikely to showcase all this to Congress. Present thinking is to do some peace talk, plus words of caution about Iran, plus a welcome and a wariness about the new popular awakenings among Arabs. The aim is to capture as much U.S. support as possible at the U.N. and maybe add two or three states like Germany to the tiny list of nations voting against Palestinian statehood. Bibi realizes he faces substantial isolation at the U.N., but he doesn’t want total isolation.

As for the Obama team at the moment, it has many choices and no answers. It can’t decide whether Obama should give a speech before or after Bibi’s congressional oration. After would look like a rebuttal rather than a White House initiative. Going first, however, is hard without a message. Some officials want that message to be as broad as possible, in effect a speech about the whole Mideast situation, putting Palestinian-Israeli issues into that broader context. Others aren’t ready to say anything definitive about either the region or Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton favors a broad-gauged address as soon as possible. Defense Secretary Bob Gates rails against Israel at every National Security Council meeting, arguing that Washington has given Israel everything it wanted and gotten nothing in return. Special Mideast envoy George Mitchell wisely counsels against doing anything that will fail, once again. The former senator is keenly aware that the consequences of failure are loss of power to get things done in the future. Dennis Ross, the key NSC staffer on the Mideast and Iran, opposes Clinton’s idea for a big speech now. Ross, with his usual complex and enigmatic mind, may be waiting for a sign from the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, the clock will not stop. Israelis expect a major Palestinian demonstration in Jerusalem on May 15 and worry about large-scale violence. Unremarked upon by the media, another foreign flotilla is heading toward the Gaza Strip, intent on breaching Israel’s legal blockade and delivering supplies. Surely, the flotilla masterminds in Turkey and elsewhere remember well the last ship to run the gauntlet and the deaths of the crew and Israeli commandos. To boot, Israeli officials can’t just keep crossing their fingers, hoping that the upheavals elsewhere in the region will not explode on their own doorstep.

Bibi is said to be tempted to escape Israel’s ever-shrinking box with a bold, dramatic, and generous proposal to the Palestinians. But he is pulled back by the prospect of fracturing his right-wing coalition and of having to team with unwanted, more left-leaning allies. Elliott Abrams, Mideast chief on George W. Bush’s NSC staff, has an imaginative tactic for Bibi to think about. Israel should head off the U.N. vote at the pass, he says, by having Bibi proclaim to Congress that Israel accepts Palestinian statehood. But that would leave half a million Israelis in Palestinian hands without Palestine being able to protect them. This would require Israel to maintain all the present security measures until Israel and Palestine have fully agreed on peace. Sure, this is a ploy, but not a bad one for Israel because it might avoid an international blessing for a Palestinian state.

None of this lets Obama off the hook. Many Mideast experts, including in his own administration as well as many former senior officials, are pressing him to lay out a comprehensive U.S. peace plan. This would include all the elements of compromise for both the Palestinians and Israelis, but mostly for the Israelis. They want him to do this even if it means taking this leap without any prior indication by the two parties that they’d accept U.S. terms. It would be totally putting U.S. prestige on the line, naked in public, and letting the chips fall where they may. It would be jumping off the cliff for peace. It doesn’t sound like Barack Obama to me. And from what all parties know now, it would be a leap too far. That is, if this grand leap fails, U.S. credibility would virtually disappear, and the warring parties could be left without a viable intermediary. Then what?

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.