The hysteria in Washington over Unesco's vote to include Palestine as a member of the UN cultural body, although largely a manufactured effort, was nevertheless an irritating commentary on the dysfunctional nature of US politics.
Before the vote, Congressional members sent a letter to the White House titled "Oppose Dangerous Bid by the Palestinians to Gain Unesco Recognition". The Obama administration also warned corporate executives that their interests would be hurt if the Palestinians succeeded in "forcing the US" to defund the UN agency. After the vote, there was posturing that accompanied the "automatic cut off" of US dues and the shameful rhetoric that blamed the Palestinians for harming Unesco's work. Throughout, the entire affair bordered on the surreal.
I was in Washington in 1993 and 1994 after the Oslo Accords and the euphoria that followed the Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn. It was fully expected that Congress would rescind its long list of anti-Palestinian legislation. It would have been the right thing to do, but the hardline lobby Aipac and its pro-Likud supporters blocked the move.
And so instead of changing or cancelling anti-Palestinian laws passed in the previous decade, Congress was pushed to place even more punitive restrictions on US relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Instead of removing the ban on PLO operations in Washington and Palestinian diplomatic visits to the US, they were given a waiver that could be revoked and required a regular White House report to Congress to remain in effect. Aid was given to the Palestinians, but with conditions more humiliating and burdensome than any other US assistance package.
During that period, an alliance was born between Likud, which wanted the then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to fail, and Republicans in the US Congress who wanted President Bill Clinton to fail. Both saw punishing Palestinians as a safe target on which to focus their attention.
Despite Democratic control of the House of Representatives, hard-line pro-Israel politics trumped the administration's appeals to support Israeli-Palestinian peace. After Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, it was as if Likud had moved its offices to Capitol Hill. At one point, Aipac and Congress's efforts to punish Palestinians became so troubling that Rabin came to Washington to tell Aipac to stop meddling in Congress, which was interfering with his efforts to make peace.
The legislation that has now been implemented, suspending US dues to Unesco, is a product of that era. Likud and its bipartisan allies in Washington set as many pitfalls so they could to make peace impossible; and cowardly Democrats did not stand up to support the US president.
What is irritating is how selective are the memories of those who run official Washington. Instead of remembering that the automatic withdrawal of US dues to Unesco was passed to punish Palestinians and make peace more difficult, politicians today act as if these sanctions were divinely ordained. When officials lament their enforcement, saying they have no choice and even spelling out the danger posed to the US and the world, what they are really saying is that they lack the courage and political will to change the very laws they created.
Because lawmakers refuse to challenge hardline Likud supporters, they blame Palestinians for the situation that they created and now refuse to change. In the surreal world created by this mindset, Washington becomes the victim, forced to do something that it knows will hurt the world's poor, impede efforts to preserve heritage sites worldwide, harm US companies and do more damage to US standing abroad.
As long as Washington fails to confront its own dysfunction, it cannot provide real leadership in the search for peace.
Palestinians, to be sure, have problems at home. They must work to achieve national reconciliation and to give hope to their people to become part of a true national liberation struggle. But for the past several decades, Palestinians have not just had to face a brutal, humiliating and acquisitive Israeli occupation, they have also had to face down the United States, which has enabled this occupation. Washington feigned a role as an honest broker, all the while acting as a cheerleader for one side in the conflict. As painful as I find the current state of affairs, I believe that it is important that Palestinians have taken the issue to the United Nations to force Washington to face up to its failures in the Middle East and increasing isolation in the world.
For there to be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, the United States must change. This will not come easily. There will be more of the proverbial gnashing of teeth and complaints that Palestinians are pursuing a dangerous course or forcing US policy. In reality, however, all that the US is being forced to do is come to grips with its own failure and face up to its self-imposed isolation.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute