November 4, 2011

Israel's self-defeating diplomacy

Israel is falling deeper into an international mess that -- while not of its own making -- could have been of its own fixing. And Israel is the biggest loser, immediately and over the long run.

It's hard to believe I've invested three decades of my studies and career to helping shore up Israel's diplomatic capital, which should be reason for me to be angry with Prime Minister Netanyahu for letting the United Nations and world opinion -- and the separation from the Palestinians -- slip through his fingers. But it's not for me to be angry, since I won't have to live with the consequences as Israelis do. So, lets just say, I am sad for Israel, the Middle East, and Jews around the world.


Technically, it appears Israel isn't directly "canceling" its membership in UNESCO following the vote to admit Palestine. But with the United States cutting off its funding to UNESCO, as it had threatened to do, Israel understandably has little choice but to follow suit. The difference is that the United States just got re-elected to a full four-year term on the UNESCO Executive Board, during which time it can't be suspended, while Israel enjoys no such protection once it is declared in arrears -- which probably won't be immediate. Since the United States returned to UNESCO membership a few years ago, it has been able to win many battles on Israel's behalf.

Last year, the Obama administration got the UNESCO Director-General to cancel the organization's endorsement of Iran’s World Philosophy Day, and the previous year the United States engineered the defeat of an Egyptian candidate to head UNESCO, a man infamous for overseeing Egypt’s academic censorship operations and for promising to burn Jewish books -- while Israel had agreed to President Mubarak’s request not to oppose him. This was only possible because the United States was the big fish in UNESCO's pond.

Israel's absence -- even if it's now unavoidable -- nevertheless will come at a cost. UNESCO, the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization, is a perfect forum for Israel to showcase its intellectual resources to  the world, and to promote and protect its heritage sites. As a member "state" of UNESCO, the newly minted Palestine will be able to petition for "World Heritage Site" status for the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. 

The next stop might be designating the Machpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, as a Palestinian heritage site. Although Abraham was the father of Ishmael, he was ALSO the founder of the JEWISH faith together with his wife Sarah, and they and their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca -- and their son Jacob and his wife Leah -- are all buried there. 

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu may have thought the Palestinians would never have the guts to push for statehood at the United Nations, or perhaps he knew this would consolidate his political home front even more than before -- which it will. His response to the UNESCO fiasco goes beyond cutting the negligible $2 million in dues. Israel is cutting off customs payments to the Palestinians, along with  various other forms of cooperation. And still more new and expanded neighborhoods (i.e., settlements) are being announced. 


In Gaza, the Islamic Jihad's rockets and Israel's limited but sobering response will probably have little impact in the long run. But the spectacle of Palestine being admitted and Israel being suspended at UNESCO will persist and fester even beyond the likely defeat within the UN Security Council of Palestine's bid for full membership in the UN. It also injects a renewed inevitability to Palestinian diplomacy, the likes of which haven't been seen since 1974-75, when Yasir Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly and the UNGA adopted the infamous resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism. By rights, UNESCO should not have voted on admitting Palestine until its statehood status and membership have been finalized in New York, but the national delegations in each UN body can generally do as they please -- unless it's a subsidiary to the General Assembly (as is the Human Rights Council).

The latest word is that the Palestinians are going to hold off any further UN conquests for now, given the financial pressure from Israel and the United States on the Palestinian Authority, and the real prospect of Washington cutting funds to any UN agency that admits Palestine. And even without the Security Council vote, the UNGA can still adopt a resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood -- and I don't believe there's any U.S. law requiring the President to suspend dues if the UN merely "recognizes" Palestine. 

A final word, about the much anticipated U.S. veto in the Security Council. Since the Palestinian bid will probably not get the minimum nine votes out of 15, any that resolution won't pass -- and the United States won't have to cast its veto. But the impact for U.S. diplomacy and prestige is almost just as costly, since it's the consistent U.S. pressure that assured this outcome. And this is not the first U.S. veto during the past few years of Netanyahu's rhetorical push for direct negotiations with the Palestinians (while undermining the credibility of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at critical points, including repeated expansions of Israeli settlements over the pre-1967 Green Line). Israel's retaliation for the Palestinian UN victories, while meant to further undermine Abbas with his Palestinian constituents, will actually do more to damage Israel's international prestige, since the UN track is suddenly paying dividends for Abbas across the Arab world. 

Yes, Israelis love to talk about how they don't care what the world thinks, but most of them do care on a psychological level, and the fact is that what the world thinks can affect how the world acts. And by standing up for Israel these past few years, and gaining little in progress toward Mideast peace, even President Obama has limited means to keep defending Israel's interests despite Netanyahu's defiance.

As I've said before, had Netanyahu been more forthcoming, and forthright, Israel could have averted the potential for a diplomatic domino effect. At the same time, Israel could have advanced peace negotiations at what might be the last -- wasted -- hope for meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. The more Netanyahu squanders the prospects for peace, and the more the Arab peoples take  history into their own hands, the more Israel will be left behind. That's more dangerous to Israel than all the rockets in Gaza, which the Gaza terrorists won't even need to use now anyway. As the UNESCO denouement reflects, Israel is now being compelled to weaken itself by its own actions.

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