The US has trouble with the Arab world now, and will have more trouble after the UN vote on Palestinian statehood ¿ unless America shifts gears.
A strategic pivot on Palestine could avert Arab world's ire
It took mass demonstrations followed by the takeover of their embassy in Egypt last week for some in Israel to wake up to the fact that the Palestinian issue remains a flash point for Arab public opinion. The US Congress and policymakers in Washington, on the other hand, appear to remain oblivious to this rather obvious reality.
Reflecting this "new" awareness in Israel, an article in the Washington Post ("Israel faces a new consideration: The Egyptian public"), discusses the debate these developments have provoked within Israel. The article cites comments by Elie Podeh, described as "an expert on Egypt and its relations with Israel" at Hebrew University, calling for a "substantive peace initiative" to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
The importance of Palestine to Arabs is not exactly news. Public opinion polls by Zogby International across the Middle East have consistently demonstrated the central role this issue plays in shaping the Arab world view. It has also long been known, if not always acted upon, by US policymakers.
Twenty years ago, the then-US Secretary of State James Baker challenged a congressional committee to understand the important role played by the Palestinian issue for Arabs. Then, shortly after the end of the first Gulf War, General Norman Schwarzkopf again reminded Americans of this fact when he noted that "the most important factor to stability and peace in the Middle East is the resolution of the Palestinian question."
More recently, General David Petraeus caused some discomfort in Congress when he observed that the Israeli-Palestinian "conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favouritism for Israel."
So the importance of Palestine is known. But what is shocking is the degree to which politics in Washington still fails to fully grasp and act on this point. For decades the Congress and successive administrations have behaved as if they could pursue a blindly one-sided pro-Israel policy and still win support in the Arab world, ignoring the region's strong sensitivity to the Palestinian issue.
This year, however, all bets are off. Arab public opinion now matters more than ever to Arab leaders, and it should matter to American officials as well. But I worry that the US is on a dangerous collision course with Arab public opinion.
This week the Palestinians will bring their just demand for recognition to the United Nations for a vote. The Obama administration has not only gone on record saying that it will veto a resolution in the Security Council and vote "no" in the General Assembly. It has also expended vast amounts of political capital pressing the Palestinians and Arab states not to introduce the measure and urging the Europeans to join in opposing the effort.
Congress, meanwhile, has made it clear that should the Palestinians go forward with their plans, US assistance to the Palestinian Authority should be terminated. Not satisfied with passing resolutions to this effect, one-fifth of the Congress travelled to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian land to personally deliver this threat to the PA. And last week congressional leadership sent a letter to EU allies urging them to vote against the Palestinian resolution.
All of this points to a looming and most unnecessary disaster. With Zogby International's most recent polling across the Arab world showing US standing at an all-time low, Washington can ill afford to be so deliberately and aggressively flaunting Arab sensibilities. Trying to pull Israel's chestnuts out of the fire is one thing. Getting fingers burnt in the process is something else. The stakes are too high for such self-inflicted wounds.
Those wise to Washington's ways will feign impotence, claiming that domestic politics (meaning Congress' fear of AIPAC's revenge), will inhibit the administration from acting differently in order to protect national interests. They will point to the brazenness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's display of dominance over Congress and the White House last May, and ask: "What else can the administration do?"
For starters, the US could begin by recognising that not only do the US and Israel face domestic political pressures, but that Arabs do too. After two decades of failed negotiations, during which time settlements in the West Bank doubled, Palestinians need a moral boost. And after decades of anger at the failure of the US to take Arab concerns with Palestine seriously, Washington's actions are being closely scrutinised.
It is not too late to make a sharp strategic pivot, to help craft a resolution that would give the Palestinians what they need while laying the parameters for meaningful negotiations. And instead of fuelling their angst, Washington could talk the Israelis and their supporters down, making it clear that recognition of the Palestinian right to a state in no way pre-empts the need to negotiate the implementation of that right.
Such an approach would enhance American standing and give the US a much-needed boost instead of a humiliating loss.
Alas, this change in direction is not likely to occur. And so, in all probability, the US will vote "no" on a resolution to recognise a Palestinian state; Israel will seek retribution against the Palestinians by adding new settlements and placing new pressures on the occupied lands; Congress will call for a suspension of aid; and the Arab World will be enraged.
There will be consequences, because Palestine matters and Arab opinions matter. And in the context of the Arab Spring, they matter more than ever.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute