By Ali Huseyin Bakir
On September 23, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked the United Nations for recognition of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. Abbas handed U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon a letter requesting full U.N. membership, which the Security Council must consider. While Israelis totally refuse this step, the U.S. administration threatened to veto any attempt to go to the Security Council on the pretext that this unilateral step does not help achieve the goals that all parties aspire to or help achieve peace in the region.
Why to Go to the United Nations?
To Palestinians and Arabs, Israel didn’t leave them any choice but to go to the (SC), because they made all the concessions that might be envisaged to achieve peace even without having any guarantees, and negotiations with Israel have still been going on for decades without success or real progress. This is mainly because the Israelis refuse to commit to a clear and specific program for the negotiations with a time table, not to mention that they did not commit or implement any of the previous agreements originally reached with the Palestinians, in addition to the international resolutions issued by the United Nations and the Security Council.
Without achieving any progress, the unconditional U.S. support for Tel Aviv, the failure of America to play the role of honest broker, and the inability of successive U.S. administrations to force Israel to fulfill its obligations or to pressure her to stop its illegal, illegitimate acts such as occupation and settlement construction, it was necessary to go to the United Nations to demand the recognition of a Palestinian state and put its responsibilities toward the world ahead of Israel.
In these circumstances, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas considers the Security Council option to demand recognition of an independent Palestinian state as an obligation, especially as there are three other reasons which prompted the Palestinian leadership to take such a decision, namely:
1 – U.S. President Barack Obama did announce in a speech at the United Nations in September 2010 that he want to see the state gain a new full membership in the United Nations in September 2011.
2 – The international Quartet had announced that it was necessary to start negotiations last September and to end them in September 2011, and reconfirmed that in its meeting held in Munich in early February 2011.
3 – We (Palestinians) have pledged that there will be active institutions able to lead the country in September, and we have succeeded in that.
What would be the Result if Independent Palestinian State was Recognized?
According to the Arab point of view, the international recognition of an independent Palestinian state within the territories of 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital, will correct the track of the negotiations set before in Oslo, the direction and the goal of these negotiations will become clear as will the time table.
In addition, this recognition will correct the imbalance with Israel so that the negotiations will come to be between two independent states, will break the Israeli intransigence, and provide a legal status to the Palestinian state.
Although the announcement and recognition may not lead to a fast change on ground right now, mainly because of the Israeli occupation and the presence of the illegal settlements, but without a doubt it will lead to a change in the rules of the game and bound Israel to its responsibilities and international obligations, which entails other legal effects.
Moreover, this step will provide the opportunity to push toward serious negotiations and force Israel to fulfill its obligations or face the legal and political implications of escaping. It will open the door wide for the accountability of Israel and prosecution for its violations, and may allow the Palestinians to file a complaint before the International Criminal Tribunal against the illegal settlements.
The Arab League’s Position
In spite of the U.S. threat to veto the file if presented to the Security Council, the Arab League is leading the move to support the declaration of a Palestinian state. The follow-up committee of the Arab League’s Arab Peace Initiative had previously announced that it had taken the necessary steps to enlist the support required for the recognition of the Palestinian state. It affirmed that the option of a just and comprehensive peace with Israel will not be achieved unless Israel fully withdraws from occupied Arab territories to the lines of June 4, 1967, an independent state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital is established, and a just and agreed-upon solution to the refugee issue is reached.
This effort combined with the Palestinian National Authority effort lead by president Mahmoud Abbas up until August 2011 has resulted in the recognition by 123 countries out of 193 in the world of Palestine as an independent state, which means only six more countries are needed to ensure two-thirds of the possible votes if the file is presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations instead of the Security Council.
Saudi Warnings Towards U.S. Veto
Saudi Arabia warned recently the U.S. of the consequences if it decides to veto the issue. In his article published in the New York Times under the title “Veto a State, Lose an Ally,” former director of Saudi intelligence and a former Saudi ambassador to United States “Turki al-Faisal” wrote: “The Obama administration has had ample opportunities to lead Israelis and Palestinians into bilateral peace talks, but American policy makers have unfortunately been more preoccupied with a deteriorating domestic economy and a paralyzed political scene than with finding a workable solution to this epic injustice. Because Washington has offered no viable new proposals, the least it can do is step aside and not hinder Saudi, European and moderate Arab efforts to advance Palestinian rights at the United Nations,” adding that “Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has… Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy. Like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed, Saudi Arabia would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open an embassy there despite American pressure to do so. The Saudi government might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well.”
Background of the Saudi Stance Towards U.S.
There is no doubt that the firm stance from Saudi Arabia towards the U.S. administration comes within the context of internal and regional accounts that the KSA and Arab region are witnessing right now. The Saudi support for the Palestinians in this period is not an exception; it falls within the historical context of the long process of helping the Palestinians restore their legitimate rights.
It is true that financial support was most notable as Saudi Arabia had earmarked over $2.5 billion in aid to the Palestinian Authority since June 2009, making it by far the largest single supporter of the Palestinian cause. We must not forget that the current Saudi King Abdullah was the one who launched the generous 2002 Arab Peace Plan when he was crown prince, offering peace and a normalization of relations between Israel and all the Arab states in return for restoring Arab lands Israel occupied after 1967.
Saudi Arabia, which brought together all the Arab states in this initiative, was kind of humiliated when Israel cornered itself by rudely refusing this initiative and responded to it by launching wars against Lebanon and Palestine, seizing more Palestinian land and building more illegal settlements to try to change realities on ground. Washington did not even bother to make any real effort to pressure Israel not to evade the offer (or to accept the offer).That is not taking the initiative.
This behavior by Israel continued prompting King Abdullah to reassure in 2009 in the Arab League Summit held in Kuwait that Israel must realize that the choice between war and peace will be open all the time, and that the Arab peace initiative on the table today will not remain on the table forever.
Taking into consideration the misguided U.S. policies during all those years, Saudis are worried that the U.S. administration will continue this same path. Although Turki Al Faisal doesn’t currently occupy any official position, the current official Saudi stance is not far from what he had expressed.
Because Egypt is suffering from instability right now and needs time to recover and restore its power and regional influence, Iraq is under the strong influence of Tehran and Syria’s foreign policy has been paralyzed since it first witnessed an uprising. Saudi Arabia is the only Arab state left that is still effective, if not the most effective, on the regional front.
In this sense, Saudi Arabia is facing the burden of the regional instability created by the Arab revolutions. At the same time, it bears the consequences of the regional geopolitical competition in the Arab region which flared up recently between Iran, Turkey, Israel, and America, in conjunction with facing internal challenges and numerous regional threats, especially those coming from Iran.
There is a general impression among decision-making circles in Riyadh that the Americans are so naïve and often follow wrong policies in the region, leaving their allies to bear the consequences of these misguided policies, especially after 2001. They invaded Afghanistan in 2001, entering a clash with Islam under the title of the War on Terror, they occupied Iraq in 2003 to bring democracy but they brought us chaos, and instead of addressing the problem of Iran, they have increased Tehran’s influence in the region and allowed it to expand its presence in the Arab arena through their misguided policies. Now, the Americans are repeating the same mistake by mismanaging the current situation in the light of new realities amid the Arab revolutions.
As former Saudi Arabia government advisor “Nawaf Obaid” put it in one of his articles:”For more than 60 years, Saudi Arabia has been bound by an unwritten bargain: oil for security. Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided U.S. policies. But American missteps in the region since Sept. 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end. As the Saudis recalibrate the partnership, Riyadh intends to pursue a much more assertive foreign policy, at times conflicting with American interests.”
The recent events, in particular against the backdrop of Iranian meddling in a number of Arab countries from Palestine to Lebanon via Iraq and Yemen, not to mention Bahrain, have shown that Washington is a partner who cannot be relied upon, and is either unwilling or unable to cope with the Iranian threats. Instead of curbing Tehran, the counterproductive U.S policies during all these years have amplified the Iranian power in the region.
As for the issue of Israel, experience shows that the U.S. is weak and useless in the face of Tel Aviv, and unwilling in the context of its unconditional support offered to Israel to exercise any real pressure on it to push for the implementation of its obligations. Even when it comes to the issue of settlements, which is easier to discuss and the illegality of which Washington recognizes, the U.S. administration not only could not force the ban on Tel Aviv, but also vetoed the draft resolution proposed by the Arab group to condemn Israeli settlement in the occupied Palestinian territories last February 2011.
Accordingly, Washington has failed to resolve any outstanding issues in the region during at least the last decade. In addition, the U.S. no longer the global “super power” it was in the 1990s. As it suffers from serious problems at various levels of political, economic, and military issues, its power is in decline and it is rapidly losing influence in many regions including the Middle East. This has led Washington to lose its prestige, as its allies do not trust it due to its volatile positions and the cost of its approved policies, and opponents do not fear it or its threats.
Saudi Arabia, U.S., and New Realities
Taking all this into consideration, the United States has become a burden on its friends in the region, especially with the outbreak of the Arab revolutions. As prince Turki Al Faisal put it “Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the ‘special relationship’ between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.”
Ignoring the new realities in the Arab world brought by the Arab revolutions, and instead of adopting a policy of “damage control” while the region witnesses increased tensions between Ankara and Tel Aviv, or increased public Arab anger toward Israel after the killing of five Egyptian soldiers resulted in a break-in of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the United States is on the contrary heading toward associating itself with Israel. Washington is not even taking neutral stance, it insists on the open and unconditional support of Israel without any reasonable cause to justify it, risking U.S. interests in the Arab world and with Muslims.
In the past, it was possible for the Arab regimes to absorb the anger of the public toward misguided U.S. policies and the unconditional support for Israel, but today—while Arab people can fire and hire governments—this is no longer possible. Since people will blame the KSA for being an ally of America, Saudi Arabia does not intend to risk and endure the consequences of angry Arabs to please Washington. If the U.S. wants to ignore the Saudi advice and supports Israel against Palestinian rights, it has to bear alone the subsequent consequences.
Not to mention that Riyadh will no longer be able to stand idle watching its strategic regional interests eroded and Iran’s influence growing to swallow Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen. As former Saudi government adviser Nawaf Obaid said four months ago:”Saudi Arabia has the will and the means to meet its expanded global responsibilities. In some issues, the Saudis will continue to be a strong U.S. partner. In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda… there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability.”
Possible Implications of a U.S. Veto
In one of his latest T.V. interviews, foreign-policy expert and former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said “U.S. veto (against a Palestinian state) will not only be a strategic error, but will be a tragic historical error.”
- It is expected that Washington will face public backlash from an angry Arab public. The U.S. will lose what is left of its credibility in the people’s eyes in the Arab and Islamic world. A U.S. veto will be seen as a policy of double standards.
- Under the pressure of the people, and by more and more fear of potential impacts on them, U.S. friends in the region will try to distance themselves from Washington or even pursue odd regional policies.
- Taking into consideration the previous points, the U.S. will lose influence rapidly in the region while Israel will make things worse for Washington and its interests in the Arab region
- A U.S. veto will serve Iran, Syria, and the Hezbollah axis, fortify their stance, and strengthen their influence in the Arab world again. They will go back to the old policy and talks of an “axis of defiance,” especially since these countries used to exploit the Palestinian issue for their own agendas and were trying, at the beginning of the outbreak of the Arab revolutions, to say that the matter is not about rights and freedoms or coups against dictatorships, but about a revolution against U.S. policy in the region.
Of course, this claim is not true. The revolutions aimed to topple dictatorships, but when things are settled, there is no doubt that the Palestinian issue will take the stage. The problem is that the U.S. veto and support for Israel at this stage of history will quickly shift and effectively direct the debate toward Palestine rather than rights, rule of law, democracy, and economic issues.
- A U.S. veto and support for Israel at this stage might undermine the quest to achieve democratic regimes in the Arab world. The shift of the debate from focusing on democracy to focusing on Palestine, Israel, and U.S. policies will feed populism rather than rational thinking, which will drive the region toward intolerance and chaos.
- In such an environment, it will become easy to expect the outbreak of war in the region. Israel has always resorted to evading its obligations through sparking wars, and Iran had always benefitted from such conditions to expand its influence in the Arab world. These things cannot be allowed at this stage during the difficult times this region is experiencing.
Ali Huseyin Bakir, USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies