By Evan Meyerson —
On Friday, September 23, 2011, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas formally submitted a bid for full membership in the United Nations. By attempting to authorize Palestinian statehood through the U.N. rather than at the negotiating table, Abbas signaled an unprecedented move away from direct involvement by the United States in the high-level decision-making of the Middle East peace process. Sadly, Abbas’ move results, in part, from the venomous nature of foreign policy debates in the United States.
There should be little doubt that U.S. national security and foreign policy interests are best protected through American leadership in the construction of an agreement over Palestinian statehood. Yet such macro influence is largely, if not entirely, dependent on the international credibility of the President of the United States. The American President, symbolically viewed as the embodiment of the nation’s military and economic might, has long been the world’s chief arbiter. At present, Republican presidential hopefuls and, to a lesser extent, Congress have demonstrated a lack of understanding regarding the direct link between the United States’ influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the outward-facing authority of America’s chief executive. Despite the United States’ enduring role as financial provider to the Palestinians and military protector of the Israelis, political point-scoring in anticipation of the 2012 election cycle stands to erode U.S. credibility by exporting an image of internal strife. Without a more constructive, farsighted approach to exerting influence over the establishment of a Palestinian state, the rancorous nature of today’s electoral politics could needlessly hamper the United States’ ability to lead the statehood negotiating process.
There is a line between genuine foreign policy debate, which is a requirement of any functioning democracy, and disingenuous political grandstanding. Rick Perry sprinted past that line when he delivered a speech in New York lambasting President Barack Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the morning before the President’s planned address to the United Nations General Assembly. Of course, Perry was not alone in his very public condemnation of Obama. Perry’s opponent, Mitt Romney, sought not to be outdone and released a statement similarly alleging a lack of support for Israel by the Obama administration. Additionally, Congress intensified the pre-General Assembly noise through its bipartisan threats to dramatically cut aid to Palestinian territories if Abbas went forward with a formal bid for statehood. As the world awaited the official American response to the Palestinian statehood bid on the General Assembly floor, the media were treated to a distracting spectacle.
This is not an indictment of either the Republican or congressional positions, but rather an indictment of the manner in which politicians espoused those positions. Presidential candidates and members of Congress certainly have a democratic obligation to publicly voice their differences with the current administration. It is political speech devoid of substantive disagreement and full of empty rhetoric that hurts America’s standing abroad. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with critiques of the Obama administration’s approach to Israel, such self-promotional displays of disagreement diminish the President’s historically dominant position at the international negotiating table. The greatest boon to U.S. national security is an ability to dictate long-lasting policy outcomes in the Middle East. But blatant acts of “talk about me and not him” politics will only serve to undermine the credibility of the Office of the President at a precarious time for U.S. foreign clout. And damage to the credibility of the Office and its role in foreign policymaking will far outlast the Obama administration.
As public showings of discord are put on for the whole world to see, neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders are incentivized to work through the United States to bring about a Palestinian state. If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who cannot objectively be described as a force for compromise, is convinced that Obama is vulnerable come 2012, the Prime Minister is more likely to avoid taking any steps toward conciliation until after the American presidential election. Netanyahu sees two potential Republican presidents and a split Congress that advocate a view on the question of Palestinian statehood that is politically poignant among portions of the American electorate but largely unrealistic from an implementation perspective. The prospect of presidential support for Netanyahu’s hardliner approach to the statehood question will likely encourage more of the same from the Prime Minister, despite the marginalizing effect such actions have had on Israel’s global standing. Yet such a delay tactic by Netanyahu will merely postpone the most complicated impending negotiation that exists in the world today and harden the resolve of two already intransigent parties. It could be argued that the rhetoric of Congress and the Republican presidential candidates provides Obama with the opportunity to compel Abbas to work with his administration rather than risk delaying a process that may soon be led by a Republican president much more belligerent toward Palestinian concerns. Nevertheless, Abbas is more likely to regard the divisive political showmanship plaguing the American system as an opportunity to bypass altogether what Palestinians have viewed as an intermediary that unapologetically favors Israel. As demonstrated by the Palestinians’ submission of an application for statehood to the U.N., Abbas now feels empowered to try to remove the United States from a negotiation that the Americans have long controlled.
Notwithstanding Abbas’ recent move away from direct American involvement, the United States remains in the best position to spearhead negotiations between Israel and Palestinian leadership. Israel remains beholden to American support and the Palestinians need American financial aid as well as American recognition of statehood to claim any semblance of legitimacy. To be sure, it is impossible to envision a scenario in which Israelis and Palestinians negotiate an agreement without a mediator given the incendiary nature of their relationship. Yet it is hard to imagine a mediator other than the United States. The Israelis would never consider an Arab state to be a credible arbiter. Moreover, an introspective Palestinian leadership would be justified in calling into question any Arab state’s commitment to establishing a Palestinian state. If a Palestinian state officially materialized, such an event would destroy the narrative of Israeli “occupation” and “tyranny” that has well served the diversionary propaganda of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Europe’s motivations are not really trusted by either the Israelis or the Palestinians. Israel’s primary justification for founding a Jewish state was the genocide committed within the borders of some European nations and the complacency toward Jewish life exhibited by others during the Holocaust. Palestinians would likely view any of the larger European states as American surrogates. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that China, another possible mediator, seems committed to a laissez faire foreign policy of minimal interference in the business of other states. Thus, relative to the alternatives, the United States could maintain a fundamental advantage in its role as lead arbiter American political leaders must adopt a more thoughtful and less shortsighted and ostentatious approach to debating American foreign policy strategy in order to secure that leading role.
Presidential and congressional candidates seeking reelection would be wise to remember that, after an electoral victory, they must govern. And governing on the international stage becomes much more difficult when the nation you represent has lost the credibility to oversee the world’s most important negotiations. It will never be possible to eliminate politics from American foreign policy. In fact, that should not be a goal. Political debate can certainly have a healthy and democratic effect on the formation and implementation of such policy when conducted with America’s national interest in mind. Yet the venomous political environment that has recently characterized the country’s most important domestic debates is now seeping into the foreign relations arena. The politically motivated cacophony afflicting the United States’ internal debate over the issue of Palestinian statehood is drowning out American influence abroad. If the United States is viewed by other states as a collection of loud but unintelligible voices at the negotiating table, America may lose its ability to lead in the most important negotiations affecting its national security.
Image courtesy of Reuters.