By Sr. State Department Producer Elise Labott
Last year during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Barack Obama said he hoped peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians could be concluded within a year so that a Palestinian state could be seated at the next year's General Assembly.
Now, his administration is doing everything it can to prevent that from happening.
Even as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday promised to seek full statehood for the Palestinians before the U.N. Security Council, the Obama administration - along with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Quartet envoy Tony Blair - is urging Abbas to agree on a road ahead that won't lead to the floor of the U.N.. (READ: What's at stake)
The current negotiations center around a Quartet statement of principles, which would lay out the terms of reference for peace negotiations with a one-year timeline for concluding a peace deal. In essence, it restates the ideas President Obama laid out in his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring.
For starters, Israel gets recognition as a Jewish state. The Palestinians get a state along 1967 borders with agreed-upon land swaps and a settlement freeze. Neither side will get everything it wants, but diplomats sense a softening of positions by both parties.
The United States also is trying to avoid being forced into vetoing the resolution if it is brought to the U.N. Security Council, officials said. As an alternative, the U.S. is trying to block Abbas from getting a necessary nine votes in the council, according to U.S. officials and diplomats from several other
Even with a U.S. veto, the knowledge that the resolution had a nine-vote majority would be bad for the administration. Senior U.S. officials and several diplomats say the way the math is adding up; the Palestinians would likely struggle to get to nine. That could convince Abbas to bypass the Security Council and go straight to General Assembly.
While the United States is focused on the drama at the U.N. next week, it is planning for the week after, when U.S. officials will have to pick up the pieces.
The hope remains that this road ahead will be enough to convince Abbas to abandon his U.N. bid. The realization is that it probably won't be. The U.S. is now acknowledging the the best it can hope for is that a Quartet statement shapes whatever Abbas does this week. Officials who spoke to CNN said the belief is that setting out the "day after," even before Palestinians go to the General Assembly could convince
Abbas to soften his stance next week, in turn preserving the peace process.
Which is why even as the United States promises to veto anything that comes before the United Nations, American negotiators are quietly working to ensure any resolution Abbas brings to the United Nations doesn't cross "red lines." That includes placing restrictions on any new status the Palestinians seek at the U.N..
While the United States wouldn't be thrilled with any U.N. action, privately officials say they could live with the General Assembly giving the Palestinians a similar status to that of the Vatican, if it denied them the ability to seek action against Israel in international bodies like the International Criminal Court.
But the Palestinians' bid for statehood has the potential to affect much more than their own status at the United Nations.At stake is the unity of the European Union and whether its 27 members can find a common position that both supports the Palestinians and protects its alliance with the U.S..
It's also about the future of U.S. aid for the Palestinians, as well as the future of American engagement with the United Nations itself. A badly-worded resolution that passes the U.N. General Assembly would further embolden those threatening not just to cut funding for the Palestinians, but to limit U.S. funding to the U.N..
And it's about America's relationships with Israel and the Arab world and the inherent contradictions between them.
President Obama is engaged in a complicated game of Twister with his Mideast policy, one just as much about raw politics as it is about high-stakes diplomacy. Put a hand here, he alienates the Arab world after his Arab spring pledge to support freedom and self-determination for all peoples in the region. Put a foot there, he risks alienating Israel, thereby provoking Congress and Israel's supporters on the eve
of his re-election campaign.
Earlier this year, the United States vetoed a Security Council resolution calling Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal and "a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace." One would think the Obama administration would support such a declaration, considering that President Obama himself said the U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements," as stated in his June 2009 address in Cairo to the Muslim world.
The fallout from this controversial veto was quick and limited because the region was preoccupied
with a domino of popular uprisings and falling regimes. Today, the United States is unlikely to escape so unscathed.
In a post-Arab-spring environment, public opinion matters. Mideast lions like former President Hosni Mubarak are not around any longer to guarantee peace with Israel. Recent comments by Egypt's new prime minister that the Camp David accords that governed peace between Israel and Egypt since 1978 are no longer sacred suggest the region's new leaders are willing to say what the Arab street wants to hear.
U.S. officials are greatly afraid this new Arab populism will be more anti-American and anti-Israeli. They fear this hostility, coupled with a souring of relations with its longtime ally Turkey, could drive Israel to take actions in defense of its security that the United States cannot control.
The Palestinian bid in New York could pave the way for demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza.
Even worse, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could march against the checkpoints and settlements, running the risk of major violence. Such a scenario could put a stop to Israeli-Palestinian cooperation and result in Israel withholding critical tax revenues from the Palestinians, which could cause the Palestinian Authority to collapse.
The one elephant in the room is the future of the actual negotiations, should the U.S. and its allies be able to get the parties to agree to them. With the Palestinians divided, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing his own political battles and President Obama preoccupied with the failing American economy and his re-election, there doesn't seem to be an appetite for the hard slogging and tough compromises that would be needed for negotiations to succeed.