The pundits may be right when they say all politics is local. In September as a long-anticipated campaign for Palestinian statehood made its way to the UN General Assembly, few saw the writing on the wall in a New York special election across the East River from UN headquarters.
There in New York's 9th congressional district Republican Bob Turner decisively beat Democrat David Weprin for a seat considered safe for Democrats since the 1920s. Polls showed most voters said Israel was a "very important" factor in their vote. Even Ed Koch, the outspoken Democratic former mayor, endorsed the Republican Turner because, he said, he wanted to send a message to Obama about his anti-Israel policies. The erosion of support, Dan Senor points out in The Wall Street Journal, "could affect the electoral map, given the battleground states-such as Florida and Pennsylvania-with significant Jewish populations." Obama got the message. The White House resolved then decisively and publicly to veto a move for Palestinian statehood in the Security Council.
What appeared a timely idea to Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in the heady days of the Arab Spring turned into a decidedly bad move as uprisings move into an Arab Winter. From Syria to Yemen to Egypt, the democratic impulses of Muslim nations in the Middle East seem to be devolving into mean mobocracy or more tightly wound dictatorships.
Even for UN member states that find the Palestinian cause noble or romantic, supporting its leaders' end-run to legitimacy came at an awkward time. Egypt was downgraded by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom-a first-for "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom" just a week before Abbas planned to submit the application for Palestine to become a UN member state.
The growing whiff of oppression from the region hardly bodes well for his cause of an independent Palestinian state, one otherwise agreed to when Israel and the PA signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. A concept, it's important to point out, supported by Presidents Clinton and later Bush. But when it came time to sign on the dotted line in 2003 to create "an independent Palestinian state with provisional borders," the PA balked, refusing what it now tries to impose via international fiat.
So large is the Palestinian blunder that criticism erupted well beyond the pro-Israel lobby. The Washington Post headlined a Sept. 19 editorial, "A heedless rush for Palestinian statehood" and called it the Palestinian leaders' "latest self-defeating scheme." On Al-Jazeera, Hassan Jabareen, a lawyer who runs a legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, called the quest "an embarrassing legal move." In the same forum the popular Palestinian human rights attorney Noura Erakat questioned the rationale of Palestinian leaders and warned that it suggests "we are now severing our diplomatic relations with the U.S."
Yet a defeat for Palestinians in New York won't mean victory for Israel or the United States, and Republican strategists hoping to capitalize on Obama's missteps with Israel should be sober about wider consequences. Obama's hesitancy to move decisively to bring Israel and the PA back into negotiations, heading off a UN showdown, leaves the United States and Israel more isolated in the region at a time when the region is more combustible than ever.
"You can never ignore the Israeli-Palestinian problem because if you want to ignore it, [it] will later come back and bite you on the backside," warned King Abdullah II of Jordan in a Sept. 19 interview with The Wall Street Journal.
The blunder is yet another tragic setback for average Palestinians, who, despite ongoing turmoil with Hamas, have made significant economic and structural gains under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The University of Texas-educated economist had begun to move out from under the moribund leadership of Abbas, who is set to retire next year. Fayyad, rumored to oppose privately the UN petition for statehood, has built his leadership on calls for transparency and an end to corruption-making progress toward what many one day hope can be a legitimate Palestinian government ready to live peaceably alongside a fully recognized Israel.