Last week, I detailed part of the price the US is likely to pay for this veto, the first one in over four years (seven Mideast resolutions have passed in that time). But there will surely be more.
There are two main factors that compound the effect this veto has: the rhetoric of the current President of the United States and this particular moment in history.
Americans are not going to remember this veto for very long; we rarely do. But the fishbowl Americans live in is transparent, and others, who do not have the luxury of
being able to treat international relations so lightly, have much better memories.
People still recall President Obama’s eloquent speech in Cairo in 2009. And they’ve long since realized that he is never going to live up to the pretty words. Obama expresses very noble ideals, but he is not a fighter for those ideals. He seeks at all times to avoid confrontations, whether with Republicans, members of his own party in Congress or in the international arena.
But in this case, all Obama needed to do was to stand aside on a resolution that reflects official US policy. Yes, people in the Arab world, as well as Israeli peace activists, realize that would have been a political headache. But it’s a little hard for them to muster sympathy right now for the American president.
Obama has done a shameful job of responding to the ongoing tidal wave of revolution in the Arab world. While people risk life and limb to rid themselves of dictators, some of them long-time clients of the USA, the US’ only response has been for everyone to show “restraint.” The only harsh statement was aimed at Iran, reflecting not a response to the battles for freedom, but a cynical political opportunism that completely smothers any hint of principle.
Amidst all of that, the US had a golden opportunity to reshape our badly tarnished image. Just an abstention on the UNSC resolution, just that small gesture in the one part of the Middle East where the US could, potentially, wield by far the most influence to free people from a regime which does not respect their human, much less civil rights, would have made up for quite a bit of American failure.
The Obama Mystique, Its Discontents and Its Silver Lining
The fact is, the rest of the world, and the Arab world in particular, had hoped that Obama would change the United States’ direction after the neoconservative-inspired George W. Bush disaster. No one expected miracles, but they thought there would be some change they could believe in.
While most American combat troops have withdrawn from Iraq, the American presence there and the effects of the war remain strong. Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan and its spread to parts of Pakistan has also seen a spike in civilian casualties and growing anger at American carelessness regarding civilian safety in that war. The ineffectual efforts at Israel-Palestine peace, the feckless capitulation and lack of leadership Obama has displayed with a Congress beholden to AIPAC and the lack of any support, even rhetorical, for Arab people struggling to escape the bonds of dictatorships have crystallized disappointment and even some antipathy for Obama in the Middle East.
There is also the justifiable view of Obama as a weak leader, but this has brought with it some opportunities for the Palestinians. Israeli journalist Ami Kaufman, writing in the Jerusalem Post, contends that “The US has lost any ounce of credibility it had left with this latest move. It’s time for someone else to take over this show.” He’s quite right.
Israel, of course, will hold on to American involvement at all costs. After all, when the world’s only superpower (however shakily we may be holding on to that title) is ready to sacrifice its own self-interest and attack its own President just to fend off a UN condemnation of you, that’s a prize you don’t easily surrender.
And to this point, the Palestinian Authority has bet on the hope that the US would pressure Israel into compromise. Now that such hope has proven to be empty, will Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have the courage to try to forge another path?
Surprisingly, there have been some indications that this is the case. The most intriguing development is the proposal by Fayyad for a temporary unity government with Hamas, where Hamas would retain security control of the Gaza Strip pending elections to be held this July.
Hamas has, thus far, reacted with understandable suspicion, has stated that they’ve not heard from the PA in Ramallah and are only aware of the idea from the media. Still, if Fatah and Hamas would indeed re-form a unity government, it would further distance the Palestinians from the United States (which would probably see Congress try once again to enact something like the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Bill of 2006, which passed the House but never came to a vote in the Senate), and, given the new realities in the Middle East, it is an open question as to whether Europe would react to Hamas’ participation in a Palestinian government the same way they did five years ago. It is certain that there would be much more support from Turkey and the Arab League for such a government than there was in 2006.
[It’s worth noting here that the Quartet’s conditions for talks with the Palestinian government stipulate that every party abide by them. The conditions – recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and agreement to abide by past agreements – are not made on the Palestinian government, which would be a legitimate demand, but on each individual political party. What’s particularly notable about that is the fact that the party in control of the current Israeli government, Likud, would not meet any of those conditions with regard to the Palestinians and the Knesset’s largest party, Kadima, would meet only one the third of those conditions.]
There is also the matter of the protest this past Sunday in the West Bank which was engineered by Fatah and specifically targeted Obama. While the protest itself was more of a Fatah stage show, it still did reflect popular Palestinian anger at the veto.
The fact that the PA did not accept the bogus “compromise” that the US offered and did not back down when the US threatened to halt the flow of aid money to the PA has given the PA some small part of its credibility back, at least for the moment. Given the PA’s precarious position in the wake of the Palestine Papers and the wave of protest throughout the Arab world, they may be desperate enough to try a radically different course.
The silver lining to the whole Veto Affair may well be that the Obama Administration has laid bare the impotence that AIPAC (and other factors, lobbying and cultural) has foisted on the United States’ peacemaking efforts. There is a crying need for forceful action to bring about the compromises that will be required for any solution to be reached. That is never going to happen under the status quo, and neither Israel nor the United States is going to change that status quo. Only the Palestinians would ever do that, but given their lack of any real power, that will be a very difficult road. If they do embark on it, though, they may be surprised by how much popular support there is for such a move not only among Arabs, but also in Europe, the United States and, yes, in the long run, even among much of the global Jewish community, including some sectors of Israeli society.