President Obama had hoped to use Wednesday's speech to the United Nations General Assembly to remind the world of what can happen when it comes together in the face of a common foe—in this case, Libya. But he was instead reminded that his political capital to fight to those battles is bolted to intractable conflicts with no end.
“Peace is hard,” the president told the 193-member body.
“One year ago, I stood at this podium and called for an independent Palestine. I believed then as I believe now that the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own. But what I also said is that genuine peace can only be realized between Israel and Palestinians themselves.”
One year later, though, things are worse.
Obama is acutely aware that Israel feels pinned in and isolated from the world community. The Arab Spring has demolished the implicit bargain that kept many Arab countries from actively pressuring Israel to solve its Palestinian problem. Turkey’s prime minister has been on a magical mystery tour of late, earning plaudits from the Arab world for his resolve against Israel, once a firm ally. The U.S. had to call on Egypt to allow the release of Israelis from its embassy under siege in Cairo. Iran continues to enrich uranium at an alarming rate.
Obama’s support among American Jews has dropped appreciably enough that his campaign has revamped its Jewish outreach program, according to New York magazine. It is also being solicitous of recognized validators like former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who supported the Republican that won the Orthodox Jewish vote and New York’s 9th Congressional District special election.
The Palestinian Authority’s kamikaze rush to the United Nations, always its last resort, provoked a frenzy of U.S. diplomacy last week. It may also have worked: In exchange for the U.S. hardline against statehood by fiat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have agreed to direct talks with Mahmoud Abbas.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu praised Obama’s position on the Palestinian bid as a “badge of honor,” while Abbas, according to one observer, held his head in his hands.
Obama may certainly have done his standing with American Jews a favor with his speech, but it’s important to remember that most of the major outside facilitators of Middle East peace negotiations, including Europe, think the Palestinian bid is a fool’s errand, too, as much as they sympathize with Abbas’s frustration. In the end, a diplomatic compromise may be reached, where the Palestinian Authority is given observer status, something the U.S. wouldn’t then be forced to veto.
What message would an Obama veto of a Palestinian Authority bid send to the world? A paradoxical one, in the way that commentators are throwing his own 2008 campaign themes back in his face.
On the other hand, the U.S. has never not been an ally of Israel’s at the United Nations. Indeed, the U.S.-Israel-versus-the-world divide has been one of the global body’s foundational conflicts, dating back 50 years.
Obama is in a uniquely precarious position, in part because his standing with American Jews is questionable, because Israelis barely trust him, and because the expectations placed upon him by the Arab world—expectations based in part on his identity and in part on his rhetoric, beginning with his speech in Cairo in 2009—are so expansive.