Without Mubarak, U.S. Struggles to Shield Israel from Diplomatic Pressure

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By TIME’s Tony Karon

The Palestinians are bridling against Washington’s insistence that they withdraw a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements? Better call Hosni Mubarak….

A few weeks ago, the U.S. had a reliable ally in Cairo when it came to strong-arming President Mahmoud Abbas to jump through diplomatic hoops against his better judgement. Time and again it had been Mubarak that provided the pressure and then, ostensibly, the political cover — as well as the mandate he was unable to get from his own people — for Abbas to participate in various rounds of photo-opportunity diplomacy with the Israelis in order to help the Obama Administration sustain the impression that it was making progress toward a two-state solution to the Middle East’s most enduring crisis. But Hosni Mubarak’s era ended decisively a week ago when he was turfed out of office by a citizenry  no longer willing to tolerate a leader more attentive to the geopolitical demands of his foreign patrons than to the needs of his own people. And the new demand for sovereignty, accountability and dignity firing up the Arab world bodes ill for Washington’s ability to corral Arab backing for its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So, the  U.S. is left alone to pressure the Palestinians to withdraw the resolution on which the Security Council is set to vote on Friday, restating the Council’s 1980 ruling that Israeli settlements on land conquered in 1967 are illegal, and deeming them an obstacle to peace. If the vote goes ahead, the U.S. is expected to be the only no-vote on the 15 member body, but because of its status as one of five permanent members, its nay counts as a veto. And as a prime source of revenue to an entirely aid-dependent Palestinian Authority, Washington still has plenty of leverage to bring to bear — the fact that the Palestinian leadership called an urgent meeting Friday to discuss President Obama’s request that they withdraw the Security Council resolution suggests that some of that leverage is already being brought to bear. Using the veto on a resolution broadly in keeping with Washington’s  own efforts to compel the Israelis to halt settlement construction is hardly where the Administration wants to be this week, reminding a risen Arab world, with whose democratic aspirations it is trying desperately to associate itself, of the fact that Arab interests always come  second when they conflict with Israeli demands.

Wielding the veto on Israel’s behalf on the settlement issue would leave the U.S. just as isolated on the issue as Israel is, although the Administration is under strong bipartisan pressure on Capitol Hill to do exactly that if it comes to a vote.

Pressure rather than persuasion will be the key to the U.S. getting the resolution withdrawn. That’s because Washington’s argument that the U.N. is the wrong venue to bring up the settlement issue, and that doing so would somehow impede progress toward their bottom-line goal of Palestinian statehood based on the 1967 borders, is unlikely to convince the Palestinians and their backers. For two decades the Palestinians have largely bypassed the United Nations and instead looked to Washington to broker a credible peace; the fact that they’re returning to the international body is a vote of no-confidence in the U.S.-led peace process. When the Administration argues that getting the Security Council to rule on settlements jeopardizes prospects for a negotiated agreement, many Arab and European diplomats point out that there are no negotiations currently under way, and that the peace process remains hopelessly stalled. Obama’s U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice reportedly met with Arab diplomats in an effort to get them to withdraw the resolution, and offered, among other things, that the U.S. would increase pressure on the Israelis to stop settlement activity. But the fact that the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully defied Obama’s pressure on settlements suggests that there’s no reason Rice’s reported offer would be taken seriously.

The U.S. also reportedly offered to back a non-binding statement by the Council president that would, among other things, condemn settlements as an obstacle to peace — an offer approved, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz by the Israeli leadership, which also made clear that it expected Obama to veto the resolution as it stands. But Arab countries reportedly rebuffed that offer as insufficient.

The democratic wave that has broken across the Middle East in recent weeks will inevitably challenge the basic assumptions of U.S. diplomacy in the region, nowhere more so than on the Israeli-Palestinian front. For the past decade the moderate Arab autocrats have glumly gone along with the U.S. process, which they see as hopelessly tilted in Israel’s favor, for lack of alternatives. They have privately and occasionally publicly made clear that they believe the process was going nowhere and prospects for a two-state solution were fading. And backing the U.S. in its perceived coddling of Israel did not do Arab leaders any favors with their own citizens. Now, as those citizens are demanding greater accountability, there’s simply no incentive for them to continue playing the Emperor’s Clothes game to a peace process none believes is going to produce a result. And being seen to stand up to the U.S. is a cost-free symbolic crowd-pleaser to their domestic constituencies. Cost-free, that is, except to the Palestinian Authority if the U.S. threatens to cut aid. Either way, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is one that will cloud the Obama Administration’s efforts to get on “the right side of history” with the Arab appetite for freedom that it has been celebrating.