Yesterday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) voted to recognize Palestine as an independent state. The vote follows PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ wildly popular September bid for UN membership and state recognition. The vote undermines US stalling tactics to keep the issue from coming to a vote in the UN Security Council. In response, the US withdrew the $80 million it had committed to UNESCO for this fiscal year.
It’s not always easy to parse and understand diplomatic maneuvers like this. The US was always going to veto Palestinian recognition, and stalling tactics would seem to undermine US standing throughout the world. Even in terms of realpolitik, the US response is messy. Stalling, withdrawing funds and the promise of a veto is likely to inflame international opinion. Not only this, but the US stands to lose its vote in UNESCO if it stops funding for as little as two years.
If anything, the Obama administration’s maneuvers might boost the President’s domestic approval-rating as he gears up for election season by providing leverage against conservatives who claim that he “hates” Israel and God. Though Republican leadership is in thrall to extremist Tea Party politics for the foreseeable future and has never responded favorably to Obama’s efforts to placate conservatives, these recent maneuvers might boost his popularity among the general public. Indeed, there are good reasons to suspect that Obama may go down as the most pro-Israel president in US history, though this is unlikely to shift the right wing’s inflammatory rhetoric.
But the US maneuvers don’t make much sense. Obama is already regarded in the US as a President who is strong on foreign policy. Plus, there is probably something to that stereotypical claim that Americans don’t really care about foreign policy in the first place. And if Obama has slight gains among conservatives and moderates, he is also alienating the progressives who energized his first presidential campaign.
MJ Rosenberg agrees that Obama’s maneuvers make little sense, noting that that “Monday’s United Nations vote to admit Palestine into [UNESCO] presented US policymakers with a watershed choice. US interests and the Israeli government’s desires are directly pitted against each other.” He goes on to explain:
Israel expected the United States to quit UNESCO and any other international agency that admits Palestine to membership. Hard US interests would dictate that we not even consider such a move… Israel opposes UNESCO membership for Palestine as part and parcel of its policy to deny recognition of Palestine in any forum until Israel grants permission. It’s pure symbolism.
But for the United States, the implication of the policy of withdrawing from an important UN agency because its members [recognize] Palestine affects our national security in very direct ways.
It is happening because, under pressure from Israel and its lobby, the United States Congress in the 1990s passed legislation requiring the United States to not contribute to any UN entity that admits Palestine as a member.
Oh. That’s rather a crucial piece of the puzzle then. The US Congress, which generally specializes in stonewalling productive efforts at progress, passed a law requiring it to withdraw funds. Obama must do it, and there is zero chance that the current US Congress will overturn that legislation. Absolutely none. Obama can deliver all the speeches he likes about supporting a two-state solution, but there isn’t really anything substantive he can do about it. Not until a legislative body overturns the law or the Supreme Court rules that it’s unconstitutional can the US do anything useful to support a just peace process. Oh, and good luck on that latter possibility.
Anyone who follows US foreign policy should be accustomed to seeing it advance its own interests in sometimes very cynical ways. The popular uprisings against Middle Eastern dictators that continue to rock the region highlight just a few of the many instances in which the US has supported undemocratic dictators in pursuit of its own gains. But these actions are counterproductive, and it’s hard to make a case that they advance US interests at all.
Let’s put the ridiculousness of this in perspective: Not even the state of Israel has halted its support of UNESCO. And the US does it because it’s the law. This has to be one of the most absurd examples highlighting the brokenness of the US political system yet. Certainly, it is one of the most destructive in terms of both US interests and Palestinians’ aspirations to sovereignty. As long as the US has veto power in the Security Council and upholds its own laws, Palestinian sovereignty by way of the United Nations would seem impossible. And Obama has shown no interest in being the strong US leader needed to take on the establishment and successfully challenge that law. It will not happen in the foreseeable future.
This means that Palestinian sovereignty will not happen until (1) the US loses more of its global influence and/or (2) US citizens learn to care enough about foreign policy that they look beyond blowing up alleged terrorists. This is a battle that will have to be fought domestically, within an already frustrating, slow-moving, and outdated political system.
I wish I had something hopeful to say here, but I’m not sure that I do. US citizens will have to change the law. We will have to build lobbies bigger and wealthier than AIPAC. We will have to continue pushing – with the Occupy Wall Street protesters – for fundamental changes in our political system. And we’ll have to keep pushing to show others just how flawed the system has become. More than anything, I think, we have educate ourselves and start engaging with the implications of US foreign policy at a much deeper level. There’s a long road ahead, so get ready.