Q&A: Former American Jewish Congress Chief: U.S. Should Get Out Of The Way Of Palestinian U.N. Bid

With the international Quartet unable to relaunch talks between Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab League throwing its supportbehind a Palestinian bid at the United Nations, the prospect of a vote on Palestinian statehood in September is looming large on the horizon. But Israel and its U.S. ally are undertaking a furious diplomatic effort to avert the vote or defeat it, with a potential U.S. Security Council veto hanging over the proceedings.

Henry Siegman, the president of the U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP), a former member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the former 16-year head of the American Jewish Congress (AJC), spoke by phone to ThinkProgress to share his thoughts on how we got here, what the Palestinians are looking to get out of the U.N. and what the U.S. should do about it all.

You’ve shown support for the Palestinian initiative to have their statehood recognized by the U.N. Do you think the U.S. should get out of the way and not cast a veto in the Security Council?

I think the United States ought to do more than that, but at the very least ought to stop being the major obstructer to progress in the situation by getting out of the way. The reason the United States so far has not only been unable to make any progress and bring the situation forward, but so far has been the main player preventing any progress, is because the United States has taken the position that the only way to make any progress in this situation is a renewal of the peace process, getting [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas to talk to each other. If there is anything to be learned from years of disappointment and failure, it’s that the so-called peace process is simply a vehicle for Israel to pretend there is some potential for progress even as on the ground they are making it impossible because of their settlement project. There is a basic dishonesty here. The United States, instead of saying, “This is a fraud,” says instead Israel wants to see a two-state solution, and thus provides a cover for Israel to expand its settlements on the ground and make an outcome absolutely impossible. So it’s in that sense that I’m saying the U.S. is the major obstacle. Because for years the assumption has been that the United States is uniquely in a position to bring about an agreement because of its leverage with Israel. But it turns out the U.S. is captive to Israel’s plans.

The U.S. says that the only way for a solution to be brought about is a negotiated deal between the two parties. You’ve written that you don’t think this is quite correct.

It’s not only not quite correct; it’s absolutely wrong. There are two reasons this is totally unreal. For nearly twenty years now — since Oslo, that is — we have been trying to move the parties beyond where they’ve been. And every effort, every round of negotiations, has failed. The parties have not come closer. The only thing that has happened is that Israel has succeeded in creating the network of settlements and support infrastructure that will make a Palestinian state impossible. There are people on the ground who think the two state solution is impossible because of that.

There is a reason the peace process is a hollow exercise. The assumption all along has been that what is needed to achieve a breakthrough is a change in the modalities of the peace process that would enable the two parties to reach an agreement, something both of them really want to do, but have been prevented from doing because of years of mistrust and conflict. So what is needed is an honest broker – i.e., the U.S. — who would help the parties to overcome existing obstacles. The U.S. believed itself to be the only mediator who could facilitate an agreement, and the rest of the world agreed. But this was based on a completely false understanding of the reality of the situation.

The reality is that Israeli governments — even before Bibi Netanyahu — have opted for territory over peace. From the very beginning in 1967, Israel’s goal has been to prevent a border being drawn between them and the West Bank. The goal has been to retain permanent control over the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli governments — and especially the current one — believe that peace is not nearly as important as territory.

Famously, years ago, Moshe Dayan said, when Israel had control of Sharm-el-Sheikh [seized from Egypt in 1967’s Six Day War], “Better Sharm-el-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm-el-Sheikh.” It turns out that they had to give up all of the Egyptian territory. But that’s what they now want with the West Bank — “better the West Bank without peace than peace without the West Bank.”

In terms of their own cost benefit calculations, they believe that whatever the downside to the absence of peace, that downside is far outweighed by the importance they attach to retaining the West Bank. The problem has never been finding a formula that would allow the diplomatic process to succeed, because one of the sides has no intention of letting go of the territory.

As a snapshot, where do you see things? Do you think the Palestinians can get a resolution recognizing their statehood through the U.N.?, The question is: Even if they do get it through, what have they got?

I think the Palestinians have a shot at getting the Gen Assembly to affirm their right to statehood based on the ’67 borders subject to land swaps. They do have a shot at it even if they do not get as much support from Europeans as they are hoping to get. The question is: Is it worth the effort? On the ground, very little will change, certainly in the short term, because Israel is not about to let go of its control of the West Bank. Nevertheless, it will be an important development. Because the goal of Israeli governments has always been to retain control of the West Bank, and to do it in a way where they can blame Palestinians for an absence of a peace accord, they never wanted to set a border. When Obama recently, a year ago, in a meeting with Netanyahu, asked him to tell him in the privacy of the White House where he wants the border to be, he refused. Netanyahu absolutely refused to indicate to Israel’s most important partner where he wanted the border to be. The reason he wouldn’t say is because he can’t, for he cannot concede that his goal is that there be no border at all.

Nothing will change on the ground as a result of the vote at the U.N. The U.N. can’t force Israel to do anything, and the U.S. certainly won’t do so, so why are the Israelis so upset about this? Why are they running around the world asking people to vote against this? Because it’s a vote that affirms a border. That, too, is why Netanyahu went wild when President Obama called for a border based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. He called Obama before his speech and tried to convince him not to say it. That’s unprecedented.

The reason Palestinians are going ahead with this even though they know nothing will change on the ground in the short term is that Israel will be put on notice that the international community endorses a border on the 67 lines with territory swaps.

You say nothing will change on the ground in the near term. Are there no concrete benefits? Some commentators have said U.N. recognized statehood will allow the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), and be able to petition for prosecutions of Israeli crimes themselves rather than relying on other ICC signatories or the Security Council.

There are certain advantages, yes. They can go to the International Court. They get certain platforms that are currently not available to them to pursue their objectives. Ultimately the focus has to be not on diplomatic gamesmanship, the focus has to be on what changes the cost benefit calculation of Israeli governments. As long as they pursue a goal of controlling the West Bank and there is no price to be paid for it, any peace process — no matter how cleverly formulated — will fail because Israel will not give up that territory. So you have to change the cost-benefit calculation. There has to be a cost to Israel for pursuing that goal. Only when the cost gets serious enough will Israel make a deal and set that border. Indeed, the international community has tried to impose a cost, but the United States has prevented it.

But America’s ability to provide cover for such Israeli behavior will increasingly diminish. That’s one of the consequences of the Arab Spring. Some of the dictators who have been dancing to the American tune won’t be doing that any longer — which is something that Israelis have to think about as well. What this means is that the U.S. may not be able to afford to provide the kind of protection that Israel has been counting on. A critical development in Israel’s cost-benefit calculation has been its peace treaty with Egypt, which removed the only potential major military threat to Israel from within the region. But Israeli policies may now lead to the repudiation of that treaty by a future Egyptian government. That is a consideration that changes the cost-benefit calculation in a serious way.

Do you think there’s any chance that the U.S. might not exercise a veto at the U.N., that it might abstain from a vote?

The U.S. doesn’t like to be in the position to veto this. It’s entirely possible that the U.S. will come up with some alternative offer to get the Palestinians to withdraw it. But if they don’t, the Palestinians certainly have a shot at getting this resolution through. But that’s only a very small step, for reasons we’ve discussed, in a changing regional and international situation that will get clearer in time.

(thinkprogress.org / 23.07.2011)

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