Palestine’s bid to become a voting member at the United Nations is nearing its final hour. In the latest tally, it appears that Palestine is close to securing nine votes on the Security Council, with Brazil, China, India, Lebanon, Russia, and South Africa voting yes; Bosnia, Gabon, and Nigeria very likely to vote yes; and Britain, Colombia, France, Germany, and Portugal set to abstain from the vote. Should Palestine reach the nine-vote threshold for entry, the United States will be faced with a choice. Should it abstain, and defer to the Security Council super majority, or should it vote no and veto the Palestinian entry?
Although the U.S. has frequently exercised its veto power to the benefit of its Israeli ally, to do so again this time would be a grave mistake that goes against the ideals of U.S. foreign policy as well as Israel’s security.
Since the days of Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. has seen self-determination, the right of nations to freely determine their own political status and sovereignty, as a fundamental good in international relations. The case of the Palestinians is no exception — they deserve a state to call their own, just as Israel does. This is hardly a matter of disagreement; the U.S., Israel, and Palestinian leadership have endorsed a two-state solution that has, as its general features, a shared Jerusalem, recognition of Israel by the Palestinian state, and borders based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with land swaps to accommodate major Israeli settlements. A Palestinian seat at the U.N. would not undo any of this consensus.
Indeed, there seems to be little of anything that a Palestinian seat in the General Assembly would undo. The current Israeli government claims that it would derail the peace process, but this is nonsense for two reasons. The first is that the U.N. is not so important a body as that — on the ground, virtually nothing would change between Israel and Palestine. The second is that the peace process has already been derailed, having been knocked off course two years ago by Israel’s current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu ’75. It is Netanyahu, not the Palestinians, who has been threatening the consensus built by years and years of painstaking negotiation by allowing settlement building on the West Bank to resume, by arguing against a shared Jerusalem, and by suggesting that Israel should receive more than its pre-1967 boundaries in any final outcome.
To be fair, the Palestinians shoulder some of the blame for failing to reach a deal before Netanyahu came on the scene. Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian National Authority, would have done himself and his countrymen a favor had he been more decisive and managed to reach an agreement with Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert. But negotiations are tricky things, and Abbas, a moderate, is the leader of a people who are not all as moderate as he. To blame him for not reaching an agreement in the time frame he had is to ignore the difficulty inherent in the peace process.
But even if one believes that Abbas is to blame for not solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the few years he had with Olmert, it remains that Israel is unlikely to find a better negotiating partner. To undermine Abbas by denying him even this token victory at the U.N. would only lend strength to Hamas and others whose raison d’etre depends upon the failure of a sustainable two-state arrangement.
Americans interested in peace and Israelis interested in security will find neither if they push the Palestinians to replace Abbas with a Hamas counterpart. This is one case in which U.S. foreign policy ideals dovetail nicely with a rational assessment of its self-interest. If the U.S. were to deny Palestine entry to the United Nations, an international forum built to provide a platform for peaceful dialogue between warring countries, it would be more than just ironic — it would be tragic.