The Palestinians’ just cause heads to the UN

The US and Israel’s opposition to Palestinian statehood isn’t just immoral, it’s myopic.

Benjamin Netanyahu in Cabinet Meeting
The Obama administration is close to Israel, and plans to oppose UN recognition of Palestine [GALLO/GETTY]

The momentum of the Arab Spring is showing ongoing vitality, from Libya to Syria. In the next episode, which holds considerable potential as a catalyst for profound change, the Palestinians take their quest for statehood to the United Nations. Perhaps no other issue in the Middle East packs as much symbolic value as this one, and yet once again the United States is showing itself to be slow-footed, sclerotic and on the wrong side of history.

The Obama administration, like previous Democratic and Republican administrations, has announced it will fight hard against Palestine being recognized by the United Nations. Yet even President Obama recognises that the Palestinian cause, which would merely give 1.7 million Palestinians the same status as the thousand people that live in Vatican City, is undeniably just. Last year at the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama promised a peace plan that would lead to “an independent, sovereign state of Palestine”.

It’s hard to know if the inexperienced Obama is simply not very good at being president.

As in so many other areas of domestic and foreign policy, it’s become a well-worn truism that Obama’s deeds rarely match his words. In issue after issue, the man simply fails to deliver. It’s hard to know if the inexperienced Obama is simply not very good at being president, and knowing how to wield the pulleys of power, or whether he is achieving the policy he wants and thinks no one is noticing the sizable gap between what he says and what he does.

Yet many Americans believe that the US is missing another great opportunity. In June I attended a roundtable discussion in Barcelona which featured over a dozen young leaders of the Arab Spring, from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco and more. It made me tingle to hear these brave young people tell about the successful struggle they were waging for freedom, democracy and a better life, albeit at great personal cost and danger. The thought pounded in my head: “THESE are the people my country should be supporting.” They had strongly embraced much of the American/western creed, and they clearly represent the best possible future for the Middle East.

But in country after country, struggle after struggle, the United States has been a force of inertia and foot-dragging. Its lack of boldness and failures to seize opportunities have become a recurring pattern. Just as the Obama administration took a backseat to France and Britain’s leadership in the important struggle over ousting Gaddafi from Libya, it has shirked its responsibility in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Besides being morally and politically wrong, the United States’ long-standing intransigence is baffling even for many Americans to understand.

Myopic American support for Israel, which includes forking over $3bn a year to the increasingly belligerent Israeli leadership during a time of budget-slashing and austerity at home, is based on many factors. But the one that gets talked about the least is the impact of the antiquated US presidential election process. It’s not simply that the Israeli lobby is well-funded and powerful, shoving money at members of Congress and presidential candidates alike. The American method of electing the president gives disproportionate influence to Jewish voters living in Florida, which in recent years has been a key battleground state in presidential elections.

The Electoral College is a byzantine method in which each of the 50 states are contested as individual contests; there’s no national election for president. Florida is a large state with the fourth-highest number of electoral votes, and it is also a battleground state, which means it is usually close enough that it can be won by either a Democrat or Republican (compared to other large states like California, New York or Texas, which are all either solidly Republican or Democratic states). Florida also has a lot of Jewish voters, and in a close contest the Jewish vote can be crucial in deciding who wins Florida. In several recent presidential elections, Florida and Ohio have been crucial in deciding the presidential winners.

This factor, perhaps more than any other, explains why Democratic presidents like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have Middle East policies that vary little from that of Republican presidents like George W Bush. They know they can’t afford to lose Florida in the presidential sweepstakes. This is pandering to the Jewish vote at its worst.

At any rate, it’s clear that both the United States as well as Israel are suffering from the calamity of terrible leadership. Like the US economy, the Israeli economy is a mess, with massive demonstrations and occupations of city centers by protesters crippling the domestic scene. On September 3, some 450,000 people thronged the streets of Tel Aviv and three other towns, calling for affordable housing, cheaper basic food and better social services. Ironically, an “Israeli Spring” is in the offing.

Rather than enabling the Netanyahu government’s bungling of both the domestic economy and relations with the Palestinians, the US government should push the Israelis to get more serious about negotiating over a two-state solution. Foot-dragging over Hamas not recognising Israel’s right to exist might seem justified, but it really just provides a fig leaf for the failures of Israel’s own short-sighted leaders. Nothing will undermine Hamas’ credibility more than making gains in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

Beyond that, a more visionary Israeli leadership – as well as American leadership – would recognise that Israel has much to gain from a peaceful Middle East, as well as to contribute to it. Israel could become a key economic and technology hub, and lead a regional renaissance. A peaceful Middle East and Mediterranean basin, transformed by the emerging democracies and developing economies of the Arab Spring, would contribute much to Israel’s own peace and prosperity.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has dubbed the Palestinian bid at the United Nations for statehood a “diplomatic tsunami”, and let’s hope it is. Not only is the Palestinian cause just, but it’s a crucial one that could further the momentum of the Arab Spring. The myopic Israeli and American leaders clearly don’t realise it, but an Arab Spring combined with an Israeli Spring could be a watershed moment for this still-young 21st century.

Steven Hill ( is a political writer whose latest book is “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age“.

Follow him on Twitter: @StevenHill1776

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.