GUEST COMMENTARY: Obama's stance on Palestine pits U.S. and Israel against the world

Friday, September 30, 2011 | 8:50 p.m. CDT; updated 12:26 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 14, 2011

When President Barack Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly in September 2010, he sounded hopeful that by the following year there would be "an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."

Sure enough, in September 2011, the Palestinians asked the U.N. Security Council to recognize a state of Palestine — but Obama ordered the U.S. delegate to veto the request. What gives?

How can he support Palestinian statehood in 2010 and reject it a year later?

It's a horrible embarrassment, to say the least, to the United States, which has historically championed the right of self-determination.

The Obama administration looks particularly bad, having spent so much diplomatic energy throughout this season of Arab pro-democracy uprisings pledging to realign U.S. interests in the Middle East with American values of freedom, justice and dignity.

The White House's defense is lawyerly. Obama envisioned that Palestinian statehood would come about through negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel, overseen by the United States.

The Palestinians circumvented this mechanism; hence Obama calls their move "unilateral" and contrary to the spirit of peace. But why should the Palestinians wait for Obama's permission slip?

Like that of any other nation, their right of self-determination is an absolute principle, not a contingency plan.

The fact is that Obama's ballyhooed negotiations never got off the ground. Israel blocked them by refusing to halt its illegal settlement construction on Palestinian lands while the talks progressed.

The Palestinians were being asked to negotiate the borders of their future state even as Israel aggressively and unilaterally redrew the boundaries in stucco and concrete. Any national leaders worth their salt would decline to join talks like that.

In practice, like its predecessors, the Obama administration has made its diplomatic initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian front conditional upon Israel's whim.

Obama came into office promising to extract a settlement freeze from Israel. He knew very well that negotiations would otherwise be meaningless. Then Israel said no, its backers in Congress raised a ruckus and Washington capitulated.

Cravenly, the Obama administration not only announced that a settlement freeze was not so important after all but also joined Israel in blaming the Palestinian side for the breakdown in talks.

Now, once again, the world is on one side and the United States stands alone with Israel on the other.

Palestine's bid to join the world body is now in the hands of a Security Council panel on admitting new members.

Some analysts in Washington think the Obama administration isn't all that chagrined by the U.N. showdown. The president's political advisers want him to be isolated with Israel for the sake of his upcoming re-election campaign.

The pro-Israel lobby is still largely successful in inverting reality: In its portrayals, instead of an occupying power exploiting its military and geo-strategic advantage to grab more and more land, Israel is an innocent democracy surrounded by implacably hostile neighbors.

In key battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, there are significant numbers of pro-Israel voters, both Jews and evangelical Christians, who buy this line. If Obama is crafting his Middle East policy to secure their votes, it may be cunning politics, but it's not leadership.

Washington favors Israel so strongly that it has lost all credibility as an "honest broker" of efforts at Middle East peace. This reality is the source of much — maybe most — of the anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Without a new U.S. policy, the anger won't dissipate.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians will be compelled to try more "unilateral" gambits like the U.N. statehood bid. Settlement construction will proceed apace, along with the barriers and bypass roads that are cutting up the West Bank into bits.

And prospects for peace in Israel and Palestine will recede further and further into the distance.

Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project in Washington, D.C. This commentary appeared on the website

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Greg Allen October 3, 2011 | 12:22 p.m.

Even though many of the conditions are different -- time, place, history of relations between the two peoples -- every time I hear that Israel is again building homes in Palestinian territory against charter, I think about Germany invading Poland in 1939 for 'lebensraum', or expanded living space for Germans. There seem to be so many similarities in the attitude.

(Report Comment)
Tony Robertson October 5, 2011 | 12:05 a.m.

Greg Allen: what a ridiculous analogy. Really.

As for the author of this column - sometimes true leadership means standing up for what one believes is right, not what is popular. Especially in a popularity contest among the UN General Assembly members. Any body that expends 10 times more ink condemning Israel than states like North Korea, Iran, China, Cuba, etc., can hardly be considered deliberative.

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