Dear Mr. Obama,
A clever person succeeds in climbing out of the hole that a wise one avoids falling into. So says a Hebrew adage often applied to national leaders. To my great sorrow, you have already missed the chance to respond wisely to the upcoming Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition. You still have a few days left to be clever. I desperately hope you use them.
You strode into a foreign-policy hole during your Middle East speech last May when you dismissed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas's plan to ask for U.N. membership an attempt "to isolate Israel at the United Nations." If anyone missed your implied threat, a State Department spokesperson made it explicit last week, explaining that if "something comes to a vote in the U.N. Security Council, the U.S. will veto."
This is a mistake several times over. Despite the habitually panicked tones from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian statehood is a gain for Israel. By promising a Security Council veto, you've tied your own hands in shaping a resolution that looks certain to pass in the General Assembly and have harmed America's ability to broker Israeli-Arab diplomacy.
Abbas's U.N. gambit is the product of at least three failures, each worth weeping over for very different reasons. First, 20 years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, beginning with the 1991 Madrid Conference, haven't produced a two-state agreement. The 1993 Oslo Accord promised a final-status treaty after a five-year interim period. In retrospect, the Oslo process died on the same terrible night in 1995 that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Second, the horrors of the Al-Aqsa Intifada did not bring Palestinian independence. They brought the digging of many graves and for any sane person, should have shredded the revolutionary romance with "armed struggle."
Abbas, a sane man, became leader of the Palestinian Authority as an advocate of independence through diplomacy. His failure is the third -- but painful as this is to say, you share responsibility. True, Abbas will need to make more concessions than he acknowledges publicly. True, Netanyahu obdurately wants to avoid an agreement, and you face domestic resistance to leaning on him. But this isn't the only area where seeking an unachievable domestic consensus has harmed your leadership.
Though Abbas hasn't yet submitted his request, Palestinian officials say he'll request U.N. membership for a state defined by the pre-1967 boundaries of the West Bank and Gaza. Please look at that request again, Mr. Obama: The Palestinians will ask the international community to recognize those boundaries for the first time as Israel's de jure borders, not the mere de facto result of 1949 armistice agreements. With the Arab bloc's support, Abbas will renounce Arab claims to Israel's pre-1967 territory. Until 1967, this was one of Israel's dearest diplomatic goals. Achieving it should still be reason for Israel and its supporters to dance in the streets.
After ratification, the Palestinian mission at the United Nations would represent a state, rather than the PLO and the entire Palestinian diaspora. Combined with recognition of Israeli-Palestinian borders, this is a blow to the fantasy of a mass return of Palestinians to Jaffa and Haifa. Strengthening that interpretation is the May statement by Abbas -- a refugee from Safed in present-day Israel -- that he has realized the right of return by living in the West Bank. These are the reasons that Palestinian hardliners fear the U.N. bid, and that you should regard it as a step forward.
The danger is in a resolution passed amid confrontation. After a Security Council veto -- or perhaps bypassing the council vote entirely -- Abbas will turn to the General Assembly. With its more limited powers, the Assembly can upgrade Palestine to the status of a non-member observer nation at the United Nations. U.S. opposition is being read in the Arab world as proof that your support for a two-state agreement is empty and that your administration is useless as a mediator. Israel, already facing crises in relations with Egypt and Turkey, will find itself even more isolated internationally. In the West Bank, the U.N. resolution will not change daily life -- unless it ignites Palestinian protests, unilateral Israeli moves, or an escalating cycle of both.
As Israeli human-rights experts have noted, recognition of statehood would increase the obligations of Palestinian authorities under international law to prevent terrorism. At the same time, Palestine could ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Under Article 8, it could then request prosecution of Israelis responsible for the "transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies" -- that is, for the policy of settling Israelis in the West Bank. No one knows how such a request for prosecution would play out, but top Israeli officials would have reason to be very anxious.
If Dennis Ross and David Hale, the envoys you sent this week to Ramallah and Jerusalem, succeed in pressuring Abbas to back down, their "success" will not salvage America's status as honest broker or prevent Israeli isolation. It will weaken Abbas's rule and make violent confrontations in the West Bank more likely.
Out of self-interest in internal consensus, the European Union is reportedly taking a more sensible approach. Its diplomats are seeking Palestinian agreement to a compromise resolution in the General Assembly that most EU members could support. But America's veto power and international status mean you could achieve much more -- if you step back and offer American abstention or even an "aye" vote in return for an improved Palestinian proposal.
Along with recognition of the pre-1967 borders, a better resolution would recognize the need for "mutually agreed swaps" of territory -- in line with the parameters for a peace agreement that you laid out in May. It could call for creation of a multinational trusteeship over Jerusalem's Old City, fitting the near-agreement between Abbas and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer has proposed, the resolution should state that acceptance of Palestinian membership is based on U.N. Resolution 181 of 1947, the partition of the British Palestine Mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state. It would thereby quietly meet the Netanyahu government's demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. It should require Israel and Palestine to return immediately to direct talks, based on your parameters and aimed at an agreement ending all claims by either side against the other. In return for U.S. acquiescence or support of the resolution, Abbas should make a commitment to the United States not to disrupt negotiations with international legal action against Israel. In parallel, you should renew your insistence on a settlement freeze.
For Abbas, some of these provisions are controversial concessions. But the payoff would be international recognition on a much higher level, and the opportunity of negotiating with Israel on a state-to-state basis. Netanyahu, of course, will be enraged but will have a hard time explaining how his fury fits his acceptance of a two-state solution.
And yes, you'll face a shower of irrational accusations from Netanyahu's most strident supporters on the Jewish and Christian right in the United States. But nothing you do will ever meet their standards, and they don't vote for you anyway. To the more responsible majority of the U.S. Jewish community, you should make the case that you are acting wisely to protect Israel. You will, at least, be acting cleverly.