The U.S.-Palestinian Relationship Has Hit a Crisis

Unlike the United States' harmless verbal attacks against Israel, its hostile actions against the Palestinians comprise a strategic threat, spawning an ever-low point in their relationship.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, November 13, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, November 13, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Aaron Magid
Aaron Magid

JERICHO, WEST BANK – In a widely publicized column, The Atlantic columnist Jeffery Goldberg wrote in October “The Crisis in U.S.-Israeli Relations is Officially Here.” Most notably, an unnamed senior Obama Administration official described Netanyahu as a “chickenshit.” Yet, the events of the past weeks at the United Nations Security Council and growing U.S. threats of cutting aid after the Palestinians signed papers to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague demonstrate that U.S.-Israeli relations remain relatively strong while U.S.-Palestinian ties may have sunk to their lowest levels.

U.S.-Palestinian friction was not always the norm. As recently as the summer of 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for taking political risks in resuming bilateral negotiations with Israel. Kerry also announced a $4 billion investment plan to improve the Palestinian economy.

Only this past month did ties suffer dramatically. First came the Palestinian resolution for statehood at the United Nations Security Council. Since the summer’s Gaza War, this was the Palestinian’s most critical diplomatic initiative. Washington adamantly opposed it.

In an interview at his Jericho office, Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat expressed frustration with the U.S. position. “They refused to work with us on the UNSC draft,” Erekat told me. Refuting accusations that the Palestinians had adopted too hardline a resolution, Erekat said Kerry remained unwilling to consider – and committed to vetoing – any UNSC draft, no matter who wrote it, the French, Arabs or other.

The U.S. did everything in its power to pressure other UNSC members to reject the measure. Kerry made 13 calls to foreign ministers and leaders of UNSC member states to persuade them not to support the Palestinian proposal. Most significantly, Kerry personally spoke with Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who later surprisingly abstained in the key swing vote. Netanyahu had also asked the president of Nigeria (as well as that of Rwanda) not to support the resolution, but it is likely that the United States' pressure – as a superpower – exerted greater influence than that of Israel.

Many Palestinians responded angrily to the U.S. moves. In Bethlehem, activists burned American flags at a rally celebrating Fatah’s 50th anniversary after the vote's results were announced, and the party posted a picture of an upside down Statue of Liberty on its official Facebook page.

But the fissures in U.S.-Palestinian ties did not stop deepening there. Immediately following Washington’s vote against the Palestinian UNSC resolution, the United States opposed Abbas’ next major diplomatic initiative: joining the ICC.

U.S. Senators have threatened to cut off the $400 million aid to the Palestinian Authority over this initiative. While partisan tensions have reached a peak on Capitol Hill, both leading Democrats and Republicans have agreed to reducing or even completely ending aid to the Palestinian Authority. Obama Administration officials have fervently rejected Congressional pressure to cut aid in the past, but this time is different, with the State Department only mentioning that they were studying Senator Rand Paul’s bill under which any Palestinian case against Israel at the ICC would trigger an immediate end of U.S. financial support. Even before this point, the State Department’s spokeswoman acknowledged that “the next step would be Congress deciding what step or action they may take as it relates to assistance.”

With the Palestinian Authority largely relying on foreign aid to sustain its budget, such a move would have dramatic implications for the PA’s survival. Noting America’s opposition to both Palestinian strategic initiatives at the UNSC and ICC, Erekat sighed: “The United States opposes everything that will hold Israel accountable.”

Perhaps most significantly from a U.S. perspective, Abbas’ moves signal an end to the 20-plus years of dominance Washington has had in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. From the Wye River Memorandum to the 2000 Camp David negotiations and until the recent Kerry talks, America remained the main mediator. By moving to the UN and ICC, Abbas is attempting to internationalize the conflict. This act threatens American interests and prestige, and deepens Washington’s opposition to the Palestinian moves.

Nonetheless, senior Palestinian leaders refuse to descend to petty insults with their American counterparts. Despite Palestinian frustrated with U.S. policy, Erekat noted that “Kerry has been decent, honorable, and straightforward in the 11 meetings we have had since August. He has been so consistent in his opposition to the UNSC approach.” On a similar note, senior Obama Administration officials maintain their differences with Abbas on a policy level without launching personal attacks against the Palestinian leader.

The U.S.-Palestinian crisis is almost a complete reversal of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. The latter may involve mud-slinging (with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon calling Kerry “obsessive and messianic” and senior Obama Administration officials labeling Netanyahu “Aspergery, pompous and recalcitrant”), but on a policy level, ties between Jerusalem and Washington remain relatively strong. The United States still provides Israel approximately $3 billion in military aid annually, and , when explaining America’s vote against the UNSC Palestinian bid, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power parroted Jerusalem, noting that the resolution includes "unconstructive deadlines that take no account of Israel’s legitimate security concerns.”

Furthermore, America continues to actively work to improve Israel’s diplomatic standing (for example, when it became the only country to vote against the UN Human Rights Council’s effort to launch an inquiry into purported Israeli war crimes during the summer’s conflict with Gaza), and when it comes to settlements, the United States may issue verbal condemnations against Israel, but its actions preserve healthy ties with its ally.

When U.S .President Barack Obama entered into power, expectations were high for a more intimate U.S.-Palestinian relationship. This past month’s events at the UN Security Council, ICC and the ensuing calls to cut aid to the Palestinian Authority demonstrate how these hopes have been dashed. While the media focuses on the alleged U.S.-Israeli crisis, lest it ignore the more significant crumble in ties between the United States and Palestinians. For this demise does not exist on a merely verbal level, but a strategic one, too.

Aaron Magid is a graduate student at Harvard University specializing in Middle Eastern Studies. He has written articles on Middle Eastern politics for The New Republic, Al-Monitor and Haaretz. He tweets at @AaronMagid

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