Voice

Behind the scenes at UNGA, a receding U.S. role in the Middle East?

New York at U.N. General Assembly meeting time operates with the kind of fevered intensity of a B movie with just about as much artificial drama. Layers upon layers of security guards and police and blockades and magnetometers stir up congestion and resentment and tension even before you enter the rooms full of government officials and the coteries of aides who follow them around like the cloud of dust at Pigpen's feet.

This year, of course, the central drama centered on the Palestinian bid for statehood and how, if at all, it could be managed so it was not a huge setback to Israel and a huge embarrassment to the United States. In the hotel in which I am staying, some of the principals in this drama were camped out buzzing about the latest rumors and fretting that events were spinning out of their control.

Thus far the drama is unresolved. President Obama gave a speech that managed to thread the needle offering a string of formulations designed to resonate well in Israeli ears, Palestinian ears, and, most importantly, in the ears of those (comparatively few) American voters who really cared enough to be following this particular episode of the Real Diplomats of New York City. The Palestinians appeared unmoved. The Israelis seemed pleased. Obama went on to his next event, at the Clinton Global Initiative.

Yet for all the familiarity of the arguments that both separate and bind together the Israelis and the Palestinians, there was something different about the feel of this particular minuet.

The Palestinians had clearly taken the initiative and set the statehood vote drama in motion. The Israelis, knocked back on their heels at first by the Palestinian move, regrouped and launched a political offensive in the United States (as well as around the world) to seek support. As the New York Times reported yesterday in its on target story "Netanyahu's Ties to G.O.P. Grow Stronger", the Israelis deftly reached out to key U.S. Republicans to win support and succeeded in generating enough that the President felt the pressure. If he did not line up with Israel in the clearest possible way, he might well lose a key part of his base in swing states like New York or Florida. At the same time, Europeans and major emerging powers all staked out their positions, most in direct or indirect opposition to the United States and the Israelis.

America, once the orchestrator of Middle East peace talks, always until now a prime driver behind the scenes, had assumed a new, much more reactive role. While the Obama team worked furiously behind the scenes, at every turn, it was responding to someone else's moves. It's own initiatives largely seemed to fall flat or come a little late.

The Obama Administration has been dramatically more engaged in the peace process than was the first term Bush Administration. So this may be part of a longer term trend. But in any event, America now seems to be a less influential actor than it has been for most of the modern history of the Arab-Israeli relationship.

That doesn't mean President Obama's remarks struck a wrong note or that U.S. diplomats don't have an important role to play in this process as it moves forward. It is just that amid the frenzy of this U.N. General Assembly week, one gets the impression that much of the most important work is getting done in rooms where the Americans are not present.

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David Rothkopf

On Palestine: Sometimes accepting the glaringly obvious is the best strategy

One of the best reasons to recognize Palestine as an independent state is that it is an independent state. It has an independent government, its own institutions, a flag, a diplomatic corps, a people that seek and deserve independence and its own borders. Some of those borders are disputed but that's the case with many other states around the world.

This could be the reason that 126 U.N. member states already grant formal diplomatic recognition to the Palestinian state. Or to put it another way, this could be why fully three-quarters of the world's countries, according to an analysis by the Britains's Guardian newspaper, have concluded that Palestine has enough of the attributes of a state to be treated like one.

It is certainly no small obstacle that the Palestinian's immediate neighbor with whom it shares most of those disputed borders, Israel, does not yet recognize it as a state. Having said that, Israel itself has managed to function pretty well for the past six or so decades and still today only 105 countries acknowledge its statehood.  

This is not to minimize the very real and vitally important issues associated with reaching agreements between the Israelis and Palestinians to assure their successful co-existence. Direct negotiations are the only way to achieve this. It is however, to say that on the one hand, the Palestinian statehood debate in the United Nations is a superfluous sideshow and on the other that opposing statehood should not have been made such a big deal by the United States and Israel because they appear deeply out-of-touch with reality.

Wouldn't it have been much easier and smarter for the Israelis and the U.S. to embrace rather than fighting the obvious and to attempt to use that stance to advance negotiations rather than, as they have, take a strong stand against and indisputable reality and thus appear out of touch and on the wrong side of history while doing absolutely nothing to advance their own position or standing? Hasn't this been especially damaging for the Israelis since in so doing, they have given the Palestinians greater leverage in the equation?

For President Obama, the position with regard to Palestinian statehood also undercuts the efforts of his administration to date to move the United States away from the tired old formulations of the past that have clearly not worked. From his Cairo speech onward there was a sense he could find a different approach, reposition the United States in a way that was both still supportive of Israel and that recognized both the shifts on the ground in the Middle East and America's evolving interests in the region. But that sense is now gone or unrecognizably muddled by this stance on this fake issue.

Once again, the transformational Obama has been sold out by the political Obama. The fact that the President is unlikely to receive credit for his stance with Jewish voters might be seen as a bitter irony associated with the calculated shift. But it's not. It's a recognition that Jewish voters ... like healthcare reform advocates and those hoping for a break from Washington business as usual and those seeking true financial services reform and those seeking economic policies that can produce growth for all segments of American society ... are not suckers. They recognize when they are being played and pandered to and they distrust leaders whose most dependable trait is their willingness to shift their positions to suit their momentary political needs.

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