The Corner

Mistakes That Led to the Palestinian Statehood Bid, and How to Fix Them

This Friday, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas will appeal to the General Assembly for United Nations recognition of Palestinian statehood. We need to be completely clear about what is transpiring. This is not a step forward in the quest for peace and, legally, will not create a Palestinian state. Rather, it is a step forward in the vicious campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel.

The Palestinian action in the United Nations does not conform to the process for arriving at a two-state solution laid out in the Oslo Accords. Indeed, it is taking place in naked defiance of an agreement to which the Palestinians are signatory. Its effect will be to once again dash the hopes of all who seek lasting peace in the Middle East.

This is an especially dangerous moment for the state of Israel. It has deteriorating relationships with Turkey and Egypt. It faces longstanding dangers from Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a violent and highly unstable Syria, and a nuclear-aspiring Iran. United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state at this juncture will serve only to further isolate the Jewish state, sap its confidence in the peace process, and exacerbate regional tensions.

Worse, because it will not change the facts on the ground, it will raise and then dash Palestinian and Arab expectations. This increases the likelihood of violence, particularly at a moment when despots like Bashar al Assad want nothing more than to divert attention from their internal crises by scapegoating Israel.

Without question, a blow is being struck against peace. How did we arrive at this point?

Unfortunately, the road was paved largely by a series of mistakes and miscalculations by President Obama. He and his administration have badly misunderstood the dynamics of the region. Instead of fostering stability and security, they have diminished U.S. authority and painted our ally Israel into a corner.

To begin with, President Obama for too long has been in the grip of several illusions. One is that the Palestinian–Israeli dispute is the central problem in the region. This has been disproved repeatedly by events, most recently and most dramatically by the eruption of the Arab Spring. But it nonetheless led the administration to believe that distancing the United States from Israel was a smart move that would earn us credits in the Arab world and somehow bring peace closer. The record proves otherwise.

But the administration’s errors extend in other directions as well. President Obama has repeatedly and unilaterally created new preconditions for restarting peace talks. The result has been to encourage Palestinians simply to hold out and wait for Washington to deliver more Israeli concessions on a silver platter. Why, after all, should the Palestinians even negotiate with Israel if the White House is pressuring Israel without extracting any price from the Palestinians in return?

First, President Obama has picked fights with Israel over policies that were properly the subject of negotiations between the parties themselves. Then, when he summarily announced in May that the indefensible 1967 lines should be the starting point for resumed negotiations, he threw Israel under the bus and emboldened the Palestinians to raise the ante even more. Naively or otherwise, when Obama last year identified September 2011 as a target date for the formation of a Palestinian state and named the United Nations General Assembly as the location to declare it, he effectively wrote the script for the showdown we now have on our hands.

Where should the United States go from here? Although the Obama administration has demonstrated a congenital inability to get things right, a proper U.S. policy would be to launch an all-out diplomatic campaign to discourage the vote. We must leave no doubt that the United States will react firmly if the General Assembly recognizes a Palestinian state.

The United States should put the world on notice that it will begin by taking a long hard look at American support for U.N. programs and that it will re-evaluate its relationship with any state that votes in favor of recognition. The United States also should communicate that we are prepared to cut foreign assistance to the Palestinians so long as they continue to pursue statehood apart from the negotiating table.

But beyond the diplomacy, we need to draw some lessons from the past three years of Obama’s presidency. A first lesson is that the United States needs a president who will not be a fair-weather friend of Israel. President Obama has shamefully broken with longstanding American traditions in distancing the United States from Israel, a fellow democracy and a beacon of freedom in the Middle East.

Second, we must work as individuals and as a country to resist the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel. We must fight against that campaign in every forum, call it for what it is, and make clear that Israel’s existence is not up for debate.

— Mitt Romney served as governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. Norm Coleman served as U.S. senator from Minnesota from 2003 to 2009.

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