President Obama has vocally endorsed a two-state solution as his preferred outcome to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In fact, as recently as 12 months ago he said that he hoped the U.N. would soon welcome Palestine as its newest member. But now, as a result of pressure from Israel and from Congress, he is preparing to veto a measure to acknowledge Palestinian statehood. He should think carefully before he acts, however: The veto would be a no-win proposition for the United States. It would not advance American policy goals, and it could have serious negative consequences for America’s reputation around the world.
The United States should consider what will happen if the United Nations recognizes Palestinian statehood: Although the Palestinian Authority could claim greater legitimacy in negotiations, it would not change the facts on the ground. Israel would still be negotiating from a huge position of strength. The United States would still guarantee Israel’s security. The Palestinian Liberation Organization will still be required to uphold the commitments to security cooperation that it has made in past negotiations. Although opponents of Palestine’s push for statehood fear that it would kill future peace talks, Mahmoud Abbas has promised, “No matter what happens at the United Nations… we have to return to negotiations.” While U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood would be an important symbolic gesture, at the end of the day it will be just that: symbolic.
Weigh that against the tangible consequences that could arise from an American veto. Mahmoud Abbas’ government, which has repeatedly committed to non-violent negotiations with Israel, would absorb a critical blow to its legitimacy. When Abbas falters domestically as a result, it might naturally lead to increased support for his main rivals: Hamas. Allowing Hamas to gain a more prominent place in the Palestinian leadership is certainly not in the United States’ best interest, nor that of Israel.
A veto would also lead to serious consequences for American foreign policy. Two of our most critical international partners have strongly warned the United States against using its veto power. China’s state-run newspaper, The China Daily, warned that “if the US chooses to fly in the face of world opinion and block the Palestine UN bid next week, not only will Israel become more isolated but tensions in the region will be heightened even more.”
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., also warned in an editorial for the New York Times that “the ‘special relationship’ between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims” if the U.S. vetoes Palestinian statehood, and that “Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy” in the event of a veto.
The United States cannot afford to jeopardize its relationships with China and Saudi Arabia — both of whose support is critical for American economic, military, and diplomatic goals — over a largely symbolic measure. The time has come for the U.S. to acknowledge that there is a difference between supporting Israel and unilaterally and blindly defending all Israeli positions. As long as the United States continues to support Israel in negotiations and guarantee her security, the Jewish State will not be hurt in any tangible way by U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood.
The new, democratic governments that are rising as a result of Arab Spring could provide new hope in the Arab-Israeli peace process. That potential will be wasted if the United States stops Palestinian statehood in its tracks. America should continue to make every effort to persuade Palestine to return to the negotiating table and abandon its plan to petition the U.N. for statehood. But if it does come to a vote, then the United States must act in its own interests — not Israel’s — and refrain from vetoing the motion.