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The sound of one hand clapping

There were no winners in last week’s United Nations vote on the Arab resolution to condemn Israeli settlement policy.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas looked like he wanted an excuse to avoid making peace, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s preference for building settlements over negotiating peace only further deepened Israel’s international isolation, and President Barack Obama showed he had little influence with either side and few clear ideas about how to advance a peace process he insists is an administration priority.

The Obama administration was slow and indecisive in its response to Palestinian plans to go to the Security Council, trying to buy off Abbas when it was already too late and succeeding only in looking ineffectual. When it finally cast its veto last week, it tried to have things both ways, voting as Netanyahu wanted while agreeing with Abbas on the “illegitimacy” of Israeli settlement policy.

What it really came down to for Obama was as much domestic politics as foreign policy. With a peace process stalled by weak and disinterested Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Obama focused more on the potential political fallout at home. Abstaining was out of the question; as an old football coach said of a tie game, it’s like kissing your sister. Voting for the resolution would have done nothing to revive direct negotiations, while it would have incurred the wrath of Israel’s friends on Capitol Hill, much of the Jewish community, and a big chunk of the Democratic Party’s donor base. Republicans would have trumpeted it as more evidence of the president’s hostility toward Israel.

Had the resolution passed, it was expected — and it still may happen — that Abbas would go to the UN General Assembly in September, where the measure had 130 supporters plus 14 of 15 on the Security Council, and press for immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood.

By rejecting Obama’s request to withdraw the resolution or at least go for a more balanced “presidential statement” from the Security Council, Abbas did a giant mitzva for Israeli leaders and supporters who insist the Palestinians are not serious about peace. Topping it off, Abbas turned out thousands of demonstrators for a “day of rage” against America. None of that will help convince a budget-slashing Congress to keep sending him at least $200 million a year.

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said passage of the resolution “would only whet the appetite for further internationalization of the conflict, perhaps even leading to an effort to win a UN-imposed prescription for a final Israeli-Palestinian settlement.”

Arafat declared statehood in 1988 and 104 UN member states “acknowledge[ed] the proclamation of the State of Palestine.” Within three months, 75 states recognized Palestine. Only two states voted no: the United States and Israel, the only ones that really counted. And it will be deja vu all over again if Abbas tries it this time.

But there has been one important change. A tide of uprising — intifadas — is sweeping the Arab world from North Africa to the Persian Gulf, and America is seeing many old allies badly shaken or fall, further weakening the influence of Israel’s best — and last? — true friend.

Netanyahu may be crowing in his victory, but it is a pyrrhic one. He didn’t win any new friends in Washington or elsewhere. As he surveyed the overwhelming opposition to his settlement policy, notably from friends in the international community, the uneasy situation he created for the American administration and the explosive conditions consuming the Middle East — none directly related to Israel or the Palestinians but all having great potential impact — he seemed oblivious except to say Israel will have to increase defense spending.

Netanyahu’s continuing support for settlement expansion — whether out of ideology or political expedience — will only increase Israel’s isolation and convince even many allies in Washington that all his talk about peace is just that, talk. Meanwhile, Israel’s international stature has continued to deteriorate on his watch.

Abbas earned an uncharacteristically harsh rebuke from the Washington Post, which called him “weak and intransigent,” neither willing nor able to make peace with Israel and intent on “embarrassing and antagonizing” an American president determined to help him create a Palestinian state.

The bottom line for the U.S. veto was clearly stated: these are issues to be decided in direct negotiations between the parties themselves. But what happens when neither party wants to negotiate? Is it time for the United States to step in with a proposal of its own? It is highly unlikely much will happen until after this fall’s Palestinian elections and next year’s American election; by then there may also be elections in Israel.

I find it difficult to take seriously reports that Washington and Jerusalem are trying to formulate a joint approach for relaunching peace talks. There is no sign that Netanyahu or Abbas has any serious interest. Obama is like one hand clapping. Abbas’ decision to press for a Security Council vote and possibly go to the General Assembly this fall makes it more difficult — not easier — to get the talks back on track. Which may be just what he wants.

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