Be Careful What You Wish For

09/14/2011 10:54 am ET | Updated Nov 14, 2011
  • Dr. Charles G. Cogan Associate, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, 2010, President Obama uttered these hopeful words:

Or we can say that this time will be different... This time we should draw on the teachings of tolerance that lie at the heart of three great religions that see Jerusalem's soil as sacred. This time we should reach for what's best within ourselves, If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that can lead to a new member of the United Nations, an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.

Now it is a year later. The Palestinians say they are going to ask the United Nations Security Council for their recognition as an independent state.

And the United States says it is going to veto the Palestinian proposal.

Palestinian spokesmen have not failed to point out this apparent anomaly.

The U.S. position is that there is no point in bringing the issue of Palestinian statehood before the UN when there has been no agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Direct negotiations between the two parties is the only way to settle the issue, says the U.S.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has twice balked on issues vitally affecting possible negotiations. Firstly in refusing to freeze Israeli settlement building on occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank. Can anyone except the delusional not argue that continuing this settlement activity impedes the coming into existence of two states side by side -- Israel and Palestine -- the so-called two state solution?

Secondly, Netanyahu has shied away from recognizing the borders to be put in place in a two-state solution. When President Obama suggested a solution along the 1967 lines with land swaps -- in keeping with UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 enjoining Israel to withdraw from lands occupied in the recent conflict -- the Israeli leader rejected this formula, saying the 1967 lines were "indefensible."

The Palestinians, for their part, have resisted the other side's demand that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, on the grounds that this would leave in limbo the 1.5 million Palestinians who have remained inside Israel.

If the U.S. veto takes place, as is more than likely, the conventional wisdom in Washington's ruling circles is that this will not do undue damage to U.S. Arab relations, as the Arab Spring has had to do with democracy and dignity in the countries in question, and not with Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands. On the other hand Prince Turki al Faysal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and a member of the royal family, declares that this time will be different: if the U.S. exercises its veto, "there will be disastrous consequences to U.S.-Saudi relations." These same Washington ruling circles have a poor record on anticipating events in the Middle East. It is clear to the entire Arab world that a critical sub-text of the Arab Spring is the long bottled-up resentment against Israel's 44-year-old occupation of lands it captured from the Palestinians in 1967. The unprecedented attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on September 9 is more likely a sign of things to come.

Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. From September 1984 until July 1989 he was CIA Chief in Paris. He is currently an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.