The Corner

Palestinian Statehood Bid: Sign of a Larger Problem

We are witnessing an unfortunate and unnecessary spectacle in New York this week as the Palestinian Authority pushes its bid for formal statehood in the United Nations General Assembly. On the surface, this may strike some as mere political theater, yet another diplomatic maneuver in the longstanding dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Others may see a flare-up of the United Nations’ traditional anti-U.S., anti-Israel bias.

The outcome of the statehood bid itself is not in doubt. Whether through eleventh-hour arm-twisting or a veto, the United States will ensure the cynical, counterproductive ploy by the Palestinian Authority will fail. But the more fundamental questions relate to how we got into this mess in the first place, how much damage has been inflicted as a result, and where we go from here.

President Obama’s misguided Middle East policies directly contributed to a breakdown of the peace process. The people of Israel have lost confidence in the Obama administration and no longer feel the president understands Israel’s security needs.

We’re getting a glimpse of a world where America is less trusted by our allies, and less respected by all others. In such a world, rather than count on American leadership to be a guarantor of certain fundamental principles, parties will increasingly take matters into their own hands and the U.S. will become increasingly marginalized. 

When Israel lost confidence in its ally, their position understandably hardened. This led to the Palestinian Authority also losing hope in the peace process. Under pressure from a restless population, President Abbas chose a path outside bilateral negotiations in a clumsy and risky attempt to show his people he is doing something on their behalf. President Abbas is also attempting to further decouple Israel from the international community and in the process is undermining the peace process. 

While Pres. George W. Bush’s vision for an Israeli and a Palestinian state existing peacefully side by side may be an appropriate aspiration, we must ensure that our efforts to achieve that outcome advance Israel’s security, not threaten it. An enduring peace that protects and promotes Israel’s interests should remain our priority.

The best chance for peace is for Israel to know that America stands shoulder-to-shoulder beside her, and for the Palestinians and Israelis to sit across the table from one another in the spirit of the 1991 Madrid Conference. It is unlikely, however, that this administration can hit a “reset” button. I suspect we cannot return to status quo ante on President Obama’s watch. 

Once trust is broken, it is hard to regain. Once the United States vacates leadership responsibilities, others will be reluctant to turn to us in the future. These events do not unfold in a vacuum and the world watches closely how we carry ourselves. There is increasing talk and more speculation about our country’s trajectory. The administration’s actions portray us as a disengaged country in decline rather than a leader, and countries around the world will begin to discount the United States as a factor in their respective futures. 

I believe the world is a better place and our own interests are best served when America leads. American exceptionalism is not only about who we are as a people; it also speaks to how the United States alone is positioned to promote freedom, democracy, human rights, wealth creation, and security. It is a role we should not shrink from, but rather embrace.

We may very well be arriving at an inflection point. To be clear about my view — our future position in the world is not a function of immovable historical forces. Rather, I firmly believe that our ability to sustain leadership relates to the choices we make — or do not make — from this point forward. We need to get our core economic strength back, and we need allies and friends to understand that theirs is a special status we will reward if they share our values and global outlook. 

In the short term, we must work to regain the confidence of friends in Israel so that meaningful work toward an enduring peace can begin. Only then will a productive, Madrid-framework negotiation have a chance to succeed. This will likely require a change of government in Washington. In the longer term, the United States needs to regain our core economic strength so we can once again assume the mantle of leadership in the international community.

Jon Huntsman served as governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009.


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