Home inSight U.S. Stumbles on Palestinian Statehood Vote

U.S. Stumbles on Palestinian Statehood Vote

Shoshana Bryen and Stephen Bryen

The Obama administration is sending mixed signals again: their words point one way; their actions, another.

The White House stated its opposition to the Palestinian Authority (PA) bid for non-member state status in the UN, but declined to mobilize its and Israel’s traditional allies. It also appears the administration pressured senators to reject three amendments to the Defense Authorization bill that would have penalized the PLO, the UN, and countries receiving U.S. foreign assistance that voted against the U.S. position. One rejected amendment would have shut off all PA funding if the Palestinians seek to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.

Thus while voicing support for Israel, the administration actually gave its backing to Mahmoud Abbas in his successful UN bid to change Palestine’s status.

Our allies surely understood what the U.S. was doing. The U.S. supports and maintains the Palestinian Authority in crucial ways, particularly with money, but it also provides an American general, strategic intelligence, training, and backing for the security forces that protect Abbas (the IDF protects him from Hamas). While it is hard to imagine him flying in the face of serious American opposition, he didn’t think he had any — and he was right.

However, the U.S. decision — coupled with its stumbling through the Egyptian political crisis and the Syrian civil war — may put Abbas and Palestinian statehood seriously at risk.

Hamas just declared a dramatic (though thoroughly false) victory over Israel. It has broken out of diplomatic isolation though visits from the emir of Qatar and his checkbook, from the foreign minister of Egypt, and from what may be new consideration from the European Union, although an EU spokesman has backtracked somewhat on that. Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan is considering a visit to Gaza as well. Creating upgraded status for “Palestine” while Hamas is rising and Fatah is facing domestic disarray and a cash crunch creates almost irresistible incentives for Hamas to finish the 2007 civil war, to knock off Fatah, and to announce the extension of its rule over all of “Palestine.” In a further, odd boost to those hopes, Abbas just agreed that Hamas could hold a rally in the West Bank, something forbidden since their civil war.

The UNGA resolution appears to apply to both the West Bank and Gaza. While the resolution was “without prejudice to the acquired rights, privileges and role of the PLO in the UN as the representative of the Palestinian people,” it doesn’t appear to care who rules on the ground. Fatah, Hamas, whatever.

Why would the U.S. have allowed or encouraged Abbas to take such a risk? Probably because the administration still lacks a clear picture of the wider implications of its actions in the Middle East.

The wealthy Arab emirates — particularly Qatar — and the Saudis see Iran’s pursuit of Shi’ite domination as a threat to their interests. They believe the U.S. will support them as they create a Sunni pan-Arab approach to the region, and thus far, they’re right. In addition, Erdogan, a savvy player, wants to be a leader in the new Sunni Caliphate. Operating at U.S. request and with U.S. assistance in Syria, they hope to break the (heterodox Shi’ite) Alawite-Iran axis and to unleash the Sunni majority, and they have visions of constraining Hezbollah and the Shi’ites in Lebanon. In pursuit of the goal, Gulf-state patrons have funded groups in Syria whose plans include not only the overthrow of Assad and a new Syrian government, but also international Sunni jihad. Deliberately or not, they have given new life to al-Qaeda in Iraq (Saudi Arabia, in particular, should be wary of AQ), whose members are crossing into Syria in small but important numbers.

In addition, the U.S. has made Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt a pivotal player with the apparent intention of using Morsi as the Hamas interlocutor to break the Iran-Hamas axis and perhaps to open direct contact with Hamas. The president and secretary of State complimented Morsi for engineering the cease fire between Israel and Hamas (the Israelis were happy enough to have it, as they had already accomplished their primary objectives) and haven’t said a word about Morsi’s power grab or the heavy-handed response of Egyptian riot police to demonstrations of opposition.

Putting pressure on Israel, which the UN resolution does, is another way for Washington to polish its bona fides. The administration may well have intended to put Israel into a vise, but Israel is not the problem that should concern the United States.

The problem is that while Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, it and Iran are still joined at the hip, particularly regarding weapons and training. They had setbacks recently, but it is unlikely that Qatar, Turkey, and Egypt are going to try gunrunning into Gaza in Iran’s stead. If Hamas does decide to eliminate Fatah on the West Bank, Iran will be right there with it. Even without immediately knocking out Abbas, Palestinian status as a “state” will lead to significant political changes and could facilitate the transfer of weapons from Gaza to the PA, first to Hamas’ agents there. The IDF announced this week that Hamas is trying to reactivate “sleeper cells” on the West Bank that were shut down during the 2003 Operation Defensive Shield.

If missiles and artillery appear in the West Bank, Israel will have no option but war, and this one will have a lot of casualties — mainly Palestinian casualties. In effect the U.S. administration will have significantly strengthened Iran, even as the Iranians are losing in Syria. And, depending on the outcome in Syria (which is more likely chaos than a strong government of any single political stripe), there may be a second supply line to the West Bank. If war comes under that circumstance, the Iranians will do whatever they can to support their new friends. This might include Iranian troops, as there are in Syria, non-conventional weapons, fomenting revolution in the Gulf Arab states (beyond what they are already doing), and disrupting the oil flow in the Gulf.

Don’t look for administration action to try to constrain Iran; the White House is engaged in negotiations with the mullahs and recently extended the waiver of oil-purchase sanctions for Iran’s biggest customers, including China, to buy more time.

So, having concurrently encouraged the Fatah and the PA, Hamas, the Sunni-jihadist-but-not-Muslim Brotherhood-oriented Gulf states, Iran, and the Brotherhood, the U.S. has put itself, Israel, and its rather feckless European allies in a position that could spin out of control and lead to war, oil cutoffs, and economic dislocation in the Middle East and the West.

Permitting a change in the status of the Palestinians was a massive and unnecessary risk.