The move by the Palestinian Authority unilaterally to declare a state is an understandable, theatrical, and ultimately self-defeating gesture. Understandable in the face of the combination of rigid Israeli intransigence and ignorance and cowardice on the part of the American political establishment. The Palestinians have always been good at political agitprop, and have often confused great coups on the global stage with real progress in the daily lives of struggling Palestinian citizens.
The gesture is self-defeating because it will only further alienate the Americans and make the job of potential allies in the United States much harder. The response to this problem may well be a resounding ‘So What? Exactly what have the Americans and Europeans done for us so far?’ True enough in that the Americans have actually come through with very little. Israel, confident in the support of a wilfully ignorant Congress, has safely ignored any American pressure for sincere negotiations with the Palestinians or even slowing down the construction of settlements on Palestinian land. No American administration, especially in an election year, is willing to challenge Congress and the powerful American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC) that does so much to misdirect American policy toward this issue. However, by embarrassing the Obama administration and forcing it use its veto in the Security Council to block the statehood claim, the Palestinian leadership has just made it even more difficult to get any, repeat any, support from the United States in the future. This move even could reduce what little funding the Palestinian Authority receives. Who will fund a group that just wants to rub your face in your own weakness?
But the main conclusion of this train-wreck is to demonstrate just how isolated Israel has become. Israel has so few friends that it will not be difficult for the Palestinian Authority to get the required votes in the General Assembly of the United Nations. Without the American veto the statehood claim would very likely pass the Security Council. How has Israeli gone from being the ‘plucky, valiant little country defending itself against the Arab hordes’ to the embarrassing relative everyone hopes will stay away from Thanksgiving.
Under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu and his combative foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel has lost much of the support it used to enjoy. As Carlo Strenger, a professor at Tel Aviv University, notes in a column in The New York Times, Lieberman runs a small, right-wing hyper-nationalist party that keeps Netanyahu’s fractious coalition in power. His role model is not the liberal democracies of the West that he openly disdains. He looks to the autocrats of China and Russia as his role models. It was Lieberman who helped destroy Israel’s relations with Turkey by preventing Netanyahu from apologizing for the killing of nine Turkish citizens in the now-famous Mavi Marmara incident. Whatever, the rights and wrongs of that incident, a simple apology from Israel could have avoided a breakdown in the important relationship with Turkey.
Israel also lost badly when the autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia fell before the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Those autocrats gave only lip service to the Palestinian cause, and Israel was left free to do what it wanted. The people now running Egypt take the Palestinian issue much more seriously. When the prime minister of Turkey visited Egypt he was greeted like a conquering hero because of his uncompromising stand against Israel. Israel seems unaware that the equation in the Middle East has changed dramatically.
Netanyahu is counting on the continued support of a clueless American Congress. But do these congressmen know or even care what kind of Israel they are supporting? Is it the Israeli myth so well propagated by AIPAC or the reality so evident to anyone who cares to look? American supporters of Israel should ask themselves if they really want the intolerant, illiberal, autocratic Israel of people like Avigdor Lieberman. Or do they want a country that honours its liberal traditions, recognizes it is actually part of the Middle East and works to end its isolation by sincerely dealing with its neighbours?
As Strenger notes, Netanyahu also believes that Obama will be defeated in 2012 and that he will have more luck essentially blackmailing a gullible Republican than a much more sceptical Democrat. If his calculations are wrong and Obama does indeed win a second term he could be in for a rough ride. In a second term Obama might actually act on some of the fine words about peace and dignity that he has spoken about.
So yes, the Palestinian claim to statehood will be good theatre but terrible real politik. But the real tragedy is the transformation of Israel into the very caricature of the implacable, intolerant, and aggressive country long feared and despised by its neighbours. One fears that the reaction of the current Israeli government to developments at the UN will be to rely even more on military power in an attempt to contain the Palestinian movement. This will be difficult.