Amid the circus atmosphere and all the sound and fury, a trademark Obama administration solution for the Palestinian statehood bid is emerging: kicking the can down the road.
For several days, the Security Council option of referring the statehood bid for study and consultation, rather than holding a vote and having the US veto it outright, has been a quiet buzz. The decibel level increased yesterday, and Politico and Haaretz, among other outlets, have reported that the postponement option is gathering steam. Ynet even reports a US plan for the statehood bid to be deferred for one year (which would put the next eruption in the fall of 2012, seemingly bad timing for an Obama reelection quest).
This makes perfect sense given the administration’s record of postponements on the US debt issue. Indeed, 2011 may become the Year of Postponement, with the can kicked down the road on the US national debt and the Palestinian statehood question. Abroad, the EU has been able so far to postpone a Greek default and the collapse of the euro – a bitter medicine Brussels (and Berlin) have not been prepared yet to go ahead and swallow. In the South China Sea, China’s status quo-busting determination to drill for oil in the economic exclusion zone claimed by the Philippines has apparently entered a twilight zone, with the whereabouts of the giant marine drilling platform intended for the job unknown. (The Filipinos, monitoring their EEZ daily, say the platform isn’t there. Vietnam, which also patrols the South China Sea regularly, hasn’t publicly reported seeing it.)
A lot of freighted business is being rescheduled for 2012. Postponing the Palestinian statehood question at the UN carries a danger that can be divided into at least two components. One was articulated by an unnamed US official in Politico’s original reporting yesterday:
“It [deferral] actually is a good idea because it is like a Damocles [sword] hanging over our heads,” an American official said. “It creates an urgency to start negotiations.”
The Obama administration has reason to like the deferral option, because it puts the US in charge of a process and a threat held over Israel. The move has obvious drawbacks, in that using the threat in the six weeks preceding the 2012 election looks pretty dumb, at least as things stand today.
But the other component of the danger is that postponing this reckoning leaves the parties with the same old failed “peace process” as the fallback position. Yet Mahmoud Abbas is officially abrogating the peace process by going to the UN unilaterally. His commitment to it, such as it ever was, has obviously expired, and with it Israel’s expectation of a serious negotiating partner. There is, therefore, no peace process to fall back to – and with the prospect of simply renewing his unilateral UN push in a year’s time, Abbas has no incentive to participate meaningfully in a new set of talks. His move this month will prove, after all, that the Obama administration would rather do just about anything than use the Security Council veto.
Preventing the Security Council from considering the motion at all – ensuring that Abbas can’t get the 9 of 15 votes that he needs – would still be the US administration’s preferred outcome at this point. It is not impossible for a Security Council vote to be averted, although France just this morning broke with the Obama administration policy by calling for the Palestinians’ status in the UN to be upgraded, and for a statehood process, with “negotiations and a precise timetable,” to begin. (Russia and China are expected to vote in favor of a Palestinian statehood resolution, but they are not twisting arms to make the vote happen. The diplomatic energy is on the other side of the question.)
All that said, the US has articulated good reasons for a veto already, and a veto would be a better outcome than a deferral. Deferring the question would effectively take all the old post-Oslo assumptions and move the process built around them into the UN, where multiple nations can stake out equities they don’t necessarily have in the current deliberations of the Quartet. (France’s unexpectedly bold call for basically this plan seems motivated by the opportunity it presents for France to act outside the EU rubric.)
Deferral, particularly using some form of the active model implied by France, would also give Abbas a period in which other pressures were suspended. He could focus on making exciting things happen with the Palestinians’ new status as a non-member observer state, which would vault them into organizations like the International Criminal Court.
A veto, on the other hand, would shut the door to unilateral approaches and put a period to a failed chapter in multilateral diplomacy. Coupled with forward-looking initiative from the US, it would be an act of leadership, in default of which the most realistic prospect is of a full-scale reversion to the old, colonial/Ottoman-era patterns of European and Middle Eastern maneuvering. In many ways, in other words, a return to the League of Nations model.