Day Before UN Vote on Palestinian Statehood

Israel’s Motto on Palestinian UN Bid: Speak Loudly, but Carry a Small Stick

With recognition for Palestine almost a done deal, Israel finds itself constrained by President Obama’s re-election, by the fallout from its Gaza operation and by the new and hawkish Likud Knesset list.

With France supporting, Britain leaning, and even bosom buddy Australia abstaining, the Palestinian request to be recognized as a “non-member observer state” at the United Nations appears to be a done deal and is set to be approved by an overwhelming majority.

Whatever its final consequences, the move will mark yet another historic November 29 at the United Nations, 65 years  after the original General Assembly decision to establish “independent Arab and Jewish States” in Palestine.

As Haaretz’s Barak Ravid has reported, Israel’s response to the Palestinian step will be more muted and restrained than previously advertised: Jerusalem, in this case, talked loudly but carried a rather small stick. This prudence, which some will portray as weakness,  is a result of a combination of factors, including Barack Obama’s re-election, the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, the need to concentrate on the Iranian big picture and the most recent complication: the decidedly hawkish makeup of the new Knesset list selected by the Likud on Monday.

After all, the last thing that Netanyahu needs right now, two months before the elections, is to take harsh measures against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, which could set the stage for the kind of nightmare scenario that the Likud’s opponents have been conjuring ever since the results of the Likud primaries were made public: international isolation, renewed tensions with the United States, a confrontation, possibly violent, with West Bank Palestinians and the kind of general flare-up in which some of the Likud’s new stars will express their true and chauvinistic feelings towards all of the above.

Netanyahu’s options were limited, in any case, after Israel exhausted much of its international credit during the recent military operation in Gaza. Many friendly foreign governments who were sympathetic toward Israel’s campaign against Hamas and were willing to ignore the civilian casualties that it entailed feel obligated now to somehow “compensate” the Palestinians at the UN. And after giving Jerusalem the benefit of the doubt, the international community’s tolerance for punitive Israeli measures that might undermine the Palestinian Authority or change the legal status quo in the territories has decreased dramatically.

Excessive Israeli steps against Abbas, who is now everyone’s favorite Palestinian leader, would reverse any gains that Israel may have made in the past month by virtue of its fight against the far nastier Hamas. Such measures are likely to reinforce suspicions that Israel is deliberately bolstering Hamas in Gaza and concurrently weakening its rival Fatah in the West Bank in order to finally and irrevocably extinguish any remaining glimmers of hope for a two-state solution. A majority of the Likud’s new list, it should be noted, would gladly applaud such a scheme.

Most important, perhaps, is the virtual veto that the U.S. Administration has imposed on any Israeli actions that might isolate not only Jerusalem, which instigates such steps, but also Washington, which would have to defend it. The U.S. has tried to prevent the Palestinian move or at least soften its blow, but it was already clear during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s talks in Jerusalem last week that the deed is done, Abbas’ back is against the wall and he feels he has nothing to lose, and the main objective is to preempt and defuse any crisis that may ensue from the recognition of the virtual Palestinian state.

Israel needed American intervention in order to impose a cease fire in Gaza and it is now being asked to reciprocate by maintaining calm, not only in Ramallah but in Washington as well. The Administration fully expects Netanyahu to call off the alarms that Israel has hitherto sounded about the Palestinian move among its supporters in Congress, in which Abbas’ requests were portrayed not only as a dastardly deed but as an almost existential danger to Israel’s security.  The Administration would like to minimize any Congressional punishment of the Palestinian Authority and of the United Nations itself, which may play a role in trying to ward off the only real existential threat in town from Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu is well aware of the need to subordinate any and all other considerations to the looming confrontation with Iran – and to try and establish a new and sturdier foundation for his future relationship with Obama. Washington remains unimpressed, to say the least, by Netanyahu’s protestations that he did not endorse Mitt Romney for the presidency. And while Obama has already shown that he doesn’t carry a grudge, or at least knows how to  fake it, Netanyahu is nonetheless on a kind of unspoken probation period in which he will try to be on his best behavior for as long as he possibly can.

For the time being, Netanyahu can afford to be nice to Obama, while his new Likud party list maintains electoral discipline as it tries to distance itself from allegations about its nationalist extremism. After they get voted back into power, there will be time enough for the empowered Likud hawks to impose their will on Netanyahu and to take any and all steps necessary to reverse whatever gains Abbas may have made for the Palestinians at the United Nations in New York.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Reuters