French President Nicolas Sarkozy probably won’t win re-election, but he and his Foreign Minister Alain Juppe are shaking up the landscape of Middle East peacemaking long dominated by the United States.
Perversely, as democracy sweeps the Arab world, it is a glaring imperfection of the democratic order that is perhaps allowing Sarkozy to take a more equitable position on Middle East peace than the American President. Because of constant electioneering and populist pandering, many democratic leaders are prevented from taking risks. Obama’s UN speech on the Palestinian statehood bid was undoubtedly directed to a domestic audience, as he tries to pick up Jewish voters and sure up his base for November 2012. Sarkozy’s low approval ratings at home give him the freedom to lead abroad.
Critics of the French role would point out that they don’t plan to vote in favor of Palestinian statehood, and are calling for a resumption of negotiations stipulating that Israel end settlement construction. While that’s true, France also does not plan to veto the statehood bid and its insistance on peace talks without preconditions reflects a consensus within the EU and the so-called Quartet. What’s most important is that France is emerging as more of an alternative to the United States in the peace process.
On Thursday, Sarkozy spoke frankly about Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, an honor the United States does not even bestow upon its closest friend and ally. “It is silly to talk about a Jewish state,” Sarkozy said while referring to the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as such. “It would be like saying that this table is Catholic. There are two million Arabs in Israel.” Palestinians have long contended that by recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ all non-Jews would institutionally be relegated to second-class status.
Sarkozy proposed a bold and alternative Middle East peace plan at the UN in September. He called for renewed negotiations within a month, an agreement on borders and security to be reached within six months, and a final agreement to be struck by the time the General Assembly reconvenes in September 2012. Meanwhile, Sarkozy said that the Palestinians should be granted the “Vatican-option” and observer status at the UN. Importantly, Sarkozy said “who could doubt that [an American] veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East?”
In a similar French proposal in June, Alain Juppe laid out a vision that was mostly based on American President Barack Obama’s vision expressed in May for a two-state solution based on a return to 1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps. The inocuous statement, reaffirming American and Israeli policy for the last decade, was met with indignance and outrage from Congress and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. According to Ha’aretz, “while Obama focused on guaranteeing Israel’s security, the French initiative is concerned with ‘security for the two states (Israel and Palestine),’ Juppe told a news conference. Sounds like a more neutral mediator to me.
When it comes to Israel-Palestine, France more than the United States realizes that the earthshaking Arab Spring cannot be ignored—that the status quo is changing whether the West likes it or not. As Juppe told the Council on Foreign Relations, “things are changing all around Israel. Egypt has changed. Syria is in the situation we said before. Turkey has not in very good relations with Israel today. There are tensions… when everything is changing around you, you can stay rigid and say wait and see. I think it’s better to take in account the change and to try to move”. Amen.
While the link I’ve posted advocates for the US to support the impending Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations on September 20th, this blogger is arguing that an abstention might be wisest route. Voting against the resolution (which is what will happen) would be hugely hypocritical given the Americans’ calls for for self-determination and non-violent methodology in the region. Voting for it, while probably the preferred option in my opinion, is domestically untenable for the Administration. If the US abstains, Obama will still get ripped domestically, but will avoid most of the bullets from the Muslim world. It would uphold the State Department’s standards— If Tunisians should determine the future of Tunisia, and Egyptians the fate of Egypt, why not the Palestinians with Palestine?
All and all, the preferred American outcome would be no vote at all. Direct negotiations with the Israelis (ultimately the only way the conflict will come to a resolution) would remain the only game in town. But the vote is surely going to happen. Abbas has staked too much on his bid to turn back now and there are simply too many reasons that this is a good thing for the Palestinians.
For the United States, an abstention (or dare I say, an approval of the bid) would rescue some credibility in the Middle East, at a time when it is both very low and arguably the most valuable its ever been. According to a recent poll of 1000 Palestinians by the American Task Force on Palestine and the Palestinian Center for Public opinion, when asked to qualify what role the US has in recognition of Palestinian statehood: (4.0%) said “very good”, (4.9%) “somewhat good”, (15.7%) “somehow not good”, (67.9%) “not good at all” and (7.5%) said “I don’t know”. The Republican Congress is threatening to withhold aid from the Palestinian Authority if they go through with the bid. Given that no such demand has been made of the Israelis to motivate them to stop building settlements and end the occupation, this would damage the US reputation much further.
The logic isn’t so complicated. Muslim countries, especially Arab ones, are in an unprecedented state of transformation —> the US wants to have positive relations with these countries at this time —> one of the most contentious issues for these countries is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict —> the US would win a strategic victory by voting for (or not against) Palestinian statehood if for no other reason than that it’s extremely popular in an area of the world that matters.
Here are the kickers.
1) The bid in the UN General Assembly will undoubtedly pass, with or without US support. This would be different in the Security Council, in which the US has veto power. The US will accomplish nothing by voting against this bid—except to boost Barack Obama’s re-election prospects. By voting for it, or at least not voting against it, the US could send a message that it’s real about peace and real about democracy.
2) The Palestinians will still have to negotiate with the Israelis to become a full-UN member; the UNGA bid, if successful would only give Palestine observer status in important committees, in which they deserve say anyway, and the ability to pursue cases of human rights violations committed by Israel (of which there are many). The latter is the main reason behind an Israeli refusal to approve the bid. For the US the logic is different. The US has a huge stake in Israeli-Palestinian peace since it’s the biggest catalyst of anti-American sentiment in the region. A successful bid would pressure the Palestinians to live up to their higher international status, especially since the bid is drawing so much attention to their cause, and it will pressure Israel to behave. With the whole world watching, images of Israeli soldiers killing non-violent Palestinian protesters would be detrimental to its image. It would pressure Israel to get real about the occupation, settlements and the peace process. This is important: the bid is not a circumvention of direct negotiations with Israel, it will lead to them.
Ibrahim Sharqieh’s concluding paragraph says it perfectly: “The United States should view the proposal for a Palestinian state at the UN in September, then, as an opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to universal human values of justice and freedom, rather than acquiescing to political pressure and lobbying. And it should also recognize Palestinian statehood as a foundational element not just in ongoing negotiations, but also in forging real peace in the region. The U.S. vote over the Palestinian independence in the UN will therefore be critical not only for the Palestinians but also for the spirit of the Arab Spring.”
Given the inability of Israeli and Palestinian leaders to forge an agreement through direct negotiations in the past, this shake-up may well be worth the risk: for both Abbas and US diplomacy.
As September 20th and the UN General Assembly vote on Palestinian statehood draws closer, diplomats in the State Department should be frantic. I’m going to keep this short. It puts the United States in a very tough position when its allies use violence to suppress the very non-violent protests that America says are legitimate. To date, the biggest conflict of interest for the United States was Bahrain’s use of force to put down Shiite protesters (with a featuring role being played by the freedom-loving Saudis). That’s nothing compared to what we’re about to see, assuming things continue on their current trajectory.
Despite what the headlines might have you believe, the majority of Palestinian opposition to Israel is manifested in non-violent ways. Can the ultra-nationalist and right-wing Israeli government be trusted to treat its opponents with more respect and peace than the Assads or the Mubaraks? I’m not so sure.
As someone who wants the best for the State of Israel, this government and its policies are making me nauseous. Israel has justified its relationship with the United States by arguing that it was the most advanced and democratic country in the Middle East. It’s time to prove it. While America’s friendship is still strong, and will be maintained through September, Israel would do well to realize that like Turkey’s, America’s allegiance is not going to always be a foregone conclusion.
I pray that Netanyahu and and his government treat whatever non-violent opposition that they face in the coming weeks with peace and respect. It’s time for Israel to live up to the higher standard to which it claims it’s entitled. But I’m not holding my breath.