The cheering delegates clapping at the United Nations General Assembly hall, the Palestinian flag pulled out and waved and that unusual smile on the face of Mahmoud Abbas, provided the Palestinian Authority with its long awaited and ever so rare moment of victory.
As the General Assembly approved on Thursday, with an overwhelming majority of 138 supporters, 41 abstained and only 9 countries objecting, the upgrade of Palestine to a non-member observer state, Palestinians celebrated not only their ascent to the United Nations, but also the diplomatic defeat of efforts by the United States and Israel to draw as many member states as possible to object the move. At the end of the day, it was only Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, Nauru, Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia that joined the American-Israeli drive to block Palestine.
But while in New York Palestinians celebrate their diplomatic triumph and Israel’s isolation, in Washington the picture was entirely different. Just as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas got ready to take the podium at the historic U.N. meeting, over at the Pentagon Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta honored his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak with the Pentagon’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award. And a couple of hours earlier, on Capitol Hill, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee competed on who loves Israel more during a hearing titled Israel’s Right to Defend Itself. Israel may have suffered a blow in the international arena, but on the U.S. stage, its power is still unchallenged.
The contrast couldn’t have been more striking and as Palestinian celebrations die out, focus shifts once again to Washington, where Abbas and his prime minister Salam Fayyad now have to deal not only with an administration reluctant to dive into any new peace initiative but also with Congress that is once again growing uneasy over the Palestinian Authority’s actions.
After the first attempt by the Palestinians to gain statehood through the U.N. in September of 2011, Congress responded forcefully with a strong tug on the purse strings. Legislation limiting U.S. support to international bodies accepting Palestine as a member state was passed and individual members of Congress used their authority to put holds on parts of U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority because of its U.N. bid.
This time around, congressional response is mixed. In the Senate, a bipartisan slate of lawmakers was quick to put forward an amendment to the defense spending bill that would deny American aid to the Palestinians if they use their newly gained status to go after Israel in the International Criminal Court. Other members of both chambers expressed their wish to see punitive measures against the United Nations and the Palestinians, but action on the issue has been relatively slow and lacked the fervor that characterized Congressional response to Palestinian moves in the past.
This, however, could change with the pro-Israel lobby weighing in and asking Congress to look into the possibility of taking financial action against the Palestinian Authority. In a press release following the U.N. vote the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said that, “Congress has specifically linked continued aid and the operation of the PLO office in Washington to the Palestinians not seeking statehood status at the United Nation.” Thursday’s vote could be interpreted as an attempt to win statehood recognition, although it provided the Palestinians only with an upgrade to their previous status in the United Nations. “AIPAC,” the statement continued, “applauds this congressional leadership and urges a full review of America’s relations with the PLO, including closure of the PLO’s office in Washington.”
State Department sources said earlier this week that a legal opinion prepared before the vote made clear there is no automatic punitive measure against the Palestinian Authority required by existing laws.
The administration has made clear both to members of Congress and to Israel that it does not wish to see any cut in aid to the Palestinian Authority, which would go broke without American assistance. Israel, with its deliberately dismissive response to the Palestinian move, seemed to have agreed to the request. “The vote will change nothing on the ground,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, making clear that Jerusalem will not seek to punish the Palestinian Authority for taking its case to the U.N.
Sensing possible backlash in Congress, the PLO mission in Washington sent a letter to lawmakers in which it explained at length the rationale for turning to the U.N. while stressing that it is not a substitute for direct peace negotiations and does not represent a Palestinian wish to abandon the peace process.
Palestinians and many of the nations that voted with them on Thursday had hoped that the U.N. move will somehow jumpstart the stalled Middle East peace negotiations and push the Obama administration to take a more active role in getting the sides together. “I hope that some reason will prevail and the opportunity will be taken to take advantage of what happened today in favor of getting a political process moving,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in Washington Thursday night.
But the administration has given no indication that a new initiative is in the works. If anything, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who criticized the Palestinian move and described it as “counterproductive,” made clear that the U.S. views the vote as a setback, not as an opportunity. With elections coming up in Israel and the expected retirement of Secretary Clinton, renewing the peace process is a low priority for both Washington and Jerusalem, even after the Palestinian’s diplomatic win.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.