NEW YORK - If the Palestinian initiative to declare independence in the UN General Assembly in September needed a shot in the arm, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provided it. The list of no's Benjamin Netanyahu proudly and emphatically enumerated on Capitol Hill reconfirmed to the United Nations and the entire international community the motive for a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state: the ongoing freeze in the peace process and the lack of dialogue between the parties. The speech, as it was understood in New York, left no likelihood that talks would be renewed in the foreseeable future, and it may have brought the peace process to an end.
The relationship between UN Headquarters in New York and the Republican majority in Washington are at best problematic and at worst openly hostile, as was seen when former U.S. president George W. Bush held office. People close to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and diplomats and pundits in New York, were not surprised at all by the cheers Netanyahu received from Congress.
"It would be no exaggeration to say that every standing ovation Netanyahu received in Congress was like a stab at many a sensitive nerve at United Nations Headquarters," a veteran commentator said.
The secretary general, who usually releases statements and responses quickly, said nothing at all about Netanyahu's speech. His silence stands in stark contrast to his enthusiastic and hasty response following President Barack Obama's speech, which preceded Netanyahu's.
Even if Obama wants to prove to Israel's supporters in Washington that he stands behind his own position - that a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in September would be a mistake - Obama's ability to influence voting patterns in the UN General Assembly is limited. There have been cases when American efforts to influence a vote produced the opposite of the desired result. The most recent example is the vote on a Security Council resolution a few weeks ago against the settlements, considered a humiliation to the U.S. administration. Fourteen members of the Security Council ignored American urging and voted to condemn the settlements, pushing the United States and its veto into embarrassing isolation.
Two Western diplomats gave the same assessment, in separate conversations, of Obama's chances of influencing the outcome of the vote in the General Assembly on Palestinian statehood. The Israeli prime minister did not deal Obama "a good hand" in his speech to Congress, they both said. In other words, Netanyahu offered Obama no good reasons he could use to persuade world leaders to direct their UN envoys to vote against the resolution.
Common wisdom in New York says that the firm and unequivocal positions Netanyahu presented in Congress on issues of disagreement will give UN members who are still waivering, and those who might have abstained, a reason to consider joining the majority that has already decided to support the declaration of Palestinian statehood.
A recent assessment in New York, based on data provided by Palestinians and other Arabs, predicted a majority - 135 of 192 members - voting in favor of Palestinian statehood. Following Netanyahu's speech, the majority could climb to more than 160.
If the United Nations' sense of disappointment in Netanyahu's speech does not dissipate by September - and there will be good souls at the United Nations who will make sure that it does not - the Palestinians will feel more comfortable about giving in to the Arab League's urgings, and about heeding non-aligned countries' advice. They will counsel the Palestinians to add more significant content to their declaration, content that has practical implications with regard to their status at the United Nations.
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