WORLDPOST
09/15/2011 07:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

U.S. Takes Lonely Path In Opposing All Forms Of Palestinian Recognition

WASHINGTON -- When Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, appeared at a breakfast meeting with reporters here on Monday, it was just one event in an unusually busy day.

"If you were to see my schedule," Rice joked, "you'd wonder why I am here."

For much of the past few weeks, Rice's hectic agenda has been dominated by a single item: persuading members of the United Nations to vote against a Palestinian bid for statehood.

"The United States, and I, and others, have been working very energetically to talk to member states about the real-world consequences of this kind of approach," Rice said.

It comes as no surprise that the U.S., a longtime ally of Israel, has pledged to oppose the Palestinian statehood bid. If the Palestinians seek formal recognition of their state in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. has promised to veto the measure. If they instead ask for informal "observer" status in the U.N. General Assembly, the U.S. is enlisting allies to vote against it -- even though by all accounts Palestinians have the votes to win.

But in its vehemence to fight every form of recognition for the Palestinians, analysts say the U.S. has also highlighted its unique position within the international community on the subject of Israel -- and possibly its marginalization.

"You are going to be isolated with us in a very visible way," Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister who is now vice president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid, said of the American tack on next week's proceedings.

"The resonance of Israel and the U.S, and some other countries like the Czech Republic [standing alone against the Palestinians] will be clear."

Indeed, the diplomatic process has been such that some in the State Department have privately complained that it lately feels like they work for the Israeli government.

American officials have continued, despite the odds, to try to persuade the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas -- who formally announced Thursday that he would submit the statehood bid on Sept. 23 -- to hold off. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent two top diplomats, David Hale and Dennis Ross, back to the region for last-ditch meetings with Abbas and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"The only way of getting a lasting solution is through direct negotiations between the parties," Clinton said at the time. "And the route to that lies in Jerusalem and Ramallah, not in New York."

But the more significant diplomatic battle is being waged in New York, where administration officials are lobbying European nations to oppose the more informal, General Assembly vote with unusual vigor.

U.N. officials and other reports indicate that Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic are among those considering abstaining or opposing the proposal, while France, Spain, Britain and Portugal are said to be leaning in favor of it.

"The U.S. is definitely putting a full court press on a lot of these countries," said Zvika Krieger, who is the senior vice president of The S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and who consults regularly with administration officials on Israel.

No nation is too small: last week, the Jerusalem Post reported that the U.S. had joined Israel in lobbying the tiny Caribbean island nation of Grenada against the Palestine state.

And there are some indications that the entreaties are working -- as the statehood bid becomes less of an abstraction, Krieger said, some of the nations who supported it in principle "are starting to wonder what are the real implications to elevating [the Palestinians] to observer status."

But few expect the Americans to have more than a handful of major allies on the vote.

Earlier in the week, former British foreign secretary Jack Straw said his government ought to support the Palestinians.

And a poll of citizens in England, France and Germany showed that a majority of the population in those countries supported the initiative.

On Thursday, the European Union's chief diplomat, Catherine Ashton, was in the Middle East with a different agenda than that of the Americans: to find a way for all E.U. nations to vote in a single bloc on a General Assembly resolution.

"The E.U. is trying to come up with language that they can live with that can dissuade [the Palestinians] from going to the Security Council, and to have them going to the General Assembly with language the majority of Europeans can agree on," said Marwan Muasher, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and a former Jordanian ambassador to Israel.

"What the U.S. is doing is trying to come up with an alternative that would dissuade the Palestinians from going to the U.N. at all."

Given the odds, not everyone is convinced that the extensive effort is in the best interests of the United States, especially if it risks alienating a country that prefers to play the role of moderator in these disputes.

"Whatever the outcome, the United States is guaranteed to be the real loser in all of this," Daniel Levy, a former peace negotiator now with the New America Foundation, wrote on Wednesday. "For domestic political reasons the Obama administration is committed to oppose any U.N. initiative not authorized by Israel and to cajole and convince other countries to do likewise. The United States will find itself isolated, blamed for its own vote and the 'no's' of others, weakening its Palestinian friends while frittering away further diplomatic capital, and all at such a delicate time in the Middle East."

Indeed, on the day of Rice's appearance in Washington, an op-ed in The New York Times by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal warned that if the U.S. opposed the statehood bid, it would jeopardize the “special relationship” between the two nations.

"The United States must support the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations this month or risk losing the little credibility it has in the Arab world," Faisal wrote. "If it does not, American influence will decline further, Israeli security will be undermined and Iran will be empowered, increasing the chances of another war in the region."

At the Monitor breakfast, Rice said the administration was opposing the vote because they did not believe it would contribute to peace negotiations.

"Is this going to strengthen the institution of an eventual Palestinian state, or potentially cause them to be set back further?" she asked rhetorically. "Is this going to create a better day for the people in Palestine, or just create a growing gap between expectations and reality?"

She went on, "What will happen when after whatever show we have in the U.N is done? What will change in the real world for the Palestinian people? The answer is nothing, sadly."

Critics, however, say all the diplomatic effort may not be worth the potential costs to America's credibility.

"The U.S. is having to expend such an extraordinary amount of political and diplomatic capital," said Matt Duss, an Israel policy expert at the Center for American Progress. "And it's not like we don't have more important things to deal with in the world than spending time to deflect pressure from the Israelis. You have to ask, 'How much energy is this really worth?'"