UNSC vote on Palestine State: US Credibility at Stake

Syn­op­sis
Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Abbas’ deci­sion to seek Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil recog­ni­tion of Pales­tin­ian state­hood pos­es the most seri­ous chal­lenge to US cred­i­bil­i­ty in the Arab and Mus­lim world. It will also weak­en Israel’s strate­gic links with Turkey, its most impor­tant Mus­lim ally.

Com­men­tary

THE PALESTINE Author­i­ty is prepar­ing to con­front Israel’s main ally, the Unit­ed States, in the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil in a bat­tle of wills over recog­ni­tion of the Pales­tine State. This impend­ing diplo­mat­ic clash will sig­nif­i­cant­ly under­mine Washington’s abil­i­ty to pro­tect its friend and could weak­en its alliances in the Arab world.

A deci­sion by Pales­tin­ian Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Abbas to request the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil rather than the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly to recog­nise Pales­tin­ian state­hood is designed to force the US to make good on its pledge to veto the res­o­lu­tion. The veto will sig­nif­i­cant­ly under­mine US cred­i­bil­i­ty and call into ques­tion Pres­i­dent Barak Obama’s sup­port for the cre­ation of a Pales­tin­ian state with bor­ders based on the bound­aries of Israel pri­or to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war in which it con­quered the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

Mr. Oba­ma has vowed to block UN recog­ni­tion of the Pales­tin­ian state in sup­port of Israel. He has argued that recog­ni­tion would not fur­ther the Pales­tin­ian quest for state­hood and has set aside warn­ings from Arab nations that the veto would affect their rela­tions with the US. The pres­i­dent clear­ly feels that he can­not afford a bruis­ing domes­tic bat­tle with Israel’s sup­port­ers in the US at a time when his abil­i­ty to tack­le the country’s severe eco­nom­ic prob­lems is in ques­tion and with pres­i­den­tial elec­tions loom­ing in just over a year.

Cap­i­tal­is­ing on pop­u­lar revolt

Mr. Abbas, by drop­ping his ini­tial plan to seek recog­ni­tion by the Gen­er­al Assem­bly, has opt­ed for a head-on chal­lenge with the US that is designed to exploit the mood of pub­lic opin­ion in the Arab world where pop­u­lar revolts are fuelled in part by resent­ment at the impo­tence of their gov­ern­ments to effec­tive­ly help Pales­tini­ans assert their rights. Arab states are under pres­sure to appear to back the Pales­tini­ans more aggres­sive­ly after non-Arab Turkey set the tone ear­li­er this month by expelling Israel’s ambas­sador, down­grad­ing diplo­mat­ic rela­tions and sus­pend­ing all mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion with it. In doing so, Mr. Abbas is rid­ing the pop­u­lar wave that in Cairo led to the storm­ing of the Israeli embassy by mil­i­tant, high­ly politi­cised soc­cer fans.

Apply­ing to the Gen­er­al Assem­bly would have allowed Mr. Abbas to adopt a for­mu­la that would have avoid­ed a head-on col­li­sion with Wash­ing­ton. He could have sought recog­ni­tion of Pales­tine as a state that would not become a UN mem­ber. The US does not have a veto in the Gen­er­al Assem­bly, in which a major­i­ty endors­es recog­ni­tion of Pales­tin­ian state­hood; also its endorse­ment does not have to be approved by the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil as long as Pales­tine does not seek UN mem­ber­ship.

In forc­ing Arab states to ral­ly around his quest for state­hood, Mr. Abbas has thrown up a bar­ri­er to tac­it efforts by Israel and the Gulf states to find com­mon ground based on their eager­ness to curb the tidal wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa that have already top­pled the lead­ers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and are shak­ing the foun­da­tions of auto­crat­ic regimes in Syr­ia and Yemen.

Both Israel and the Gulf states fear that the tidal wave threat­ens the exist­ing order in the region and empow­ers the Arab street. It was bare­ly noticed that dur­ing the storm­ing of the Israeli embassy in Cairo the near­by Sau­di embassy was tar­get­ed as well. The pro­test­ers vent­ed their anger at the treat­ment of Egypt­ian pil­grims return­ing from the holy city of Mec­ca, who had been delayed for days at Jed­dah air­port. The pil­grims were insult­ed by Sau­di offi­cials for putting oust­ed Pres­i­dent Mubarak on tri­al for respon­si­bil­i­ty for the deaths of hun­dreds of Egyp­tians in the revolt ear­ly this year that forced him out of office.

Polit­i­cal real­i­ty over­rides com­mon inter­est

Israel and the Gulf states also share con­cerns about Egypt’s Sinai penin­su­la becom­ing a large­ly aban­doned fron­tier for weapons smug­gling and human traf­fick­ing and that could become a launch­ing pad for attacks on Israel along­side the Gaza Strip that is con­trolled by Hamas, the mil­i­tant Pales­tin­ian Islamist group. Also, Israel and the Gulf states both view Iran as a major threat to region­al sta­bil­i­ty; they do not want to see the Islam­ic repub­lic suc­ceed in its alleged efforts to devel­op a nuclear weapons capa­bil­i­ty.

All of that is sec­ondary to the bat­tle lines being drawn over Pales­tine. In a stark warn­ing, Prince Tur­ki al-Faisal, an influ­en­tial mem­ber of the Sau­di rul­ing fam­i­ly, warned that the king­dom will break with the US on Iraq, and per­haps on Afghanistan and Yemen, if the two coun­tries were to go sep­a­rate ways over next week’s Pales­tin­ian bid for state­hood. Prince Turki’s remarks reflect a grow­ing sense in Sau­di Ara­bia that US sup­port is as much a lia­bil­i­ty as it is an asset.

To be sure, the US, Israel and the Gulf states share a host of com­mon polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic inter­ests. Yet, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to cap­i­talise on that com­mon­al­i­ty is shrink­ing at the very moment when they would ben­e­fit most from increased coop­er­a­tion. The risks involved in act­ing on those com­mon inter­ests grow by the day as the fall­out from Turkey’s rup­tur­ing ties with Israel becomes increas­ing­ly appar­ent. Besides, emo­tions and the polit­i­cal real­i­ty of Arab and Mus­lim pub­lic opin­ion are ris­ing to the fore­front with the Pales­tini­ans gear­ing up in the Unit­ed Nations for recog­ni­tion of their state­hood.

That recog­ni­tion is like­ly be a large­ly sym­bol­ic vic­to­ry, but it is one that could dra­mat­i­cal­ly change the legal play­ing field on which the Israeli-Pales­tin­ian bat­tle is fought.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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