Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mr. President: Play Jujitsu With The U.N. Vote

The most frustrating thing about Gershom Gorenberg's smart letter to President Obama in The American Prospect is that there is nothing in it that its recipient does not already know:

Abbas is going to the U.N. Security Council because bilateral negotiations have become fruitless and embarrassing; the pursuit of statehood is actually a last ditch effort to save the two-state "peace process"; U.N. membership for Palestine would not preclude future negotiations but would clarify their terms and strengthen Abbas, the best of all possible partners in building peace; membership for Palestine in boundaries based on "the 1967 border" is an historic precedent that also confirms Israel's border.

An American veto will sour, if not poison, what residual prestige Obama has gained among the young makers of the Arab Spring; a veto will only throw the issue to the General Assembly, and a defiant vote there by an international majority will intensify Israel's isolation; a General Assembly vote will likely touch off rebellious demonstrations across the region, including, ominously, the West Bank (which the IDF has no way of handling peacefully); acceptance of Palestine by the General Assembly will give it "observer state" status, like the Vatican, and open Israel to proceedings in the International Criminal Court.

Why then is Obama backing Netanyahu in this matter? There is nothing about the decision that we don't already know: 9% jobless, Greece; Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio; AIPAC's email list; Eric Cantor's House; Dennis Ross's hubris; a media that swarms to "disappointed" Democrats (among them, editors of The American Prospect).

It is pretty clear that Obama has about as much room to do what Gorenberg suggests as revive plans for the "public option." Or is it?

I WANT TO stress that I am not among those who have lost respect for the president over the past two years. If anything, his treatment by Democratic "progressives" who can't seem to count to 41, and professional journalists who can't seem to tell correlation from cause and sabotage from strategy, has only increased my admiration for his poise. More on that another time.

But I believe Obama still has an opportunity here, one that plays to his considerable strengths, and it may not be too late to seize it.

Ross and David Hale have tried and predictably failed to preempt the U.N. vote by getting the sides to agree on a formula to resume negotiations. Let us assume the administration goes ahead and vetoes any Security Council resolution, insisting that full statehood must nevertheless be a product of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This will, again, only shift diplomatic activity to the General Assembly.

So why not use the larger forum to sketch out much more completely and assertively what, in America's view, a negotiated settlement would look like? Why not announce support for upgrading Palestine to observer statehood along with a commitment to veto any House resolution to cut off support for the PA? (J Street has, in effect, suggested a move of this kind, supporting the veto but leaving open the possibility of endorsing a General Assembly resolution while strongly opposing cutting off help to Ramallah.)

Just to be clear, I share Gorenberg's wish that Obama's administration had acted more aggressively last spring, though I understand the president's need to pick fights (and bundlers) judiciously. And I realize this approach to the General Assembly is a little fancy: for many, the U.N. is the U.N., a vote is a vote, the media's question is whether you are "pro-Israel" or not.

But as Abbas well knows, this U.N. move is political theater for everybody. The question is whether the Obama administration can play jujitsu with it, turning negative energy in the Security Council into a positive energy in the General Assembly hall, that is, force the writers of headlines around the world to think of something more nuanced and hopeful than "Obama Sinks Palestinian State."

The president has already stated his view that negotiations should proceed on the basis of the 1967 borders. Why not use this occasion to endorse the rest of the Olmert-Abbas package: an international Holy Basin in Jerusalem, a formula to acknowledge the rights of refugees, a series of steps to promote regional integration? The vision would resound in the Arab world, especially if Obama wins endorsement from the EU (and finds a way to be photographed with leaders of the emerging Libya).

Instead of just opposing Abbas's U.N. initiative, then, the administration could try to shape something more popular with Israel's perplexed majority. It is in this context he might have adopted Dan Kurtzer's suggestion that a General Assembly resolution be based on the original partition plan, which ratified international recognition of a vaguely "Jewish state."

THE LOBBY'S HARD-RIGHT forces will never forgive Obama for this, anymore than for the '67-border thing, and (as Gorenberg suggests) would never vote for him anyway. But 60-70% of American Jews are more admiring of David Remnick than Ed Koch. They will support a clear path to peace if they can be sure Obama is generally sympathetic to Israel, which (alas,) the Security Council veto will prove. It could be followed up by a trip to Jerusalem and rally in Tel Aviv. In for an agora, in for a shekel?

Anyway, the possible loss of some Jewish voters is far less important to Obama than the possible gain of voters who will see his global spine. Doing something unexpected, but something everybody from New York Times editors to David Patraeus, Tony Blair to Haaretz, can publicly defend, is worth the risk.

Obama, after all, can win over the predictable demographics and still fall short next November--unless he can turn around the perception (not deserved, but there you are) that he has been playing much too safe. We write about "independents" as if they are independent minded when they are mostly people waiting to see who others are flocking to; people impressed by trends and "strength" and Bin Laden assassinations. They are waiting to see if talking heads start calling Obama bold again, if his own start calling him theirs again.

Obama does not have many more dramatic ways to turn things around with domestic policy. Here is his chance to show courage in foreign policy, and about the region he is most heavily invested in. He can do it with a step that feels consistent with his policies and values (and unearned prizes), not some opportunistic lurch--indeed, at a time when forces at home are putting Netanyahu on the ropes. Throw Palestinians and the Israeli peace camp a life-line, Mr. President. Save yourself.