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The one-sentence blunder

Did a surprising misstep by the United States help cause the UN crisis over Palestinian statehood?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rubs his eyes while Barack Obama speaks at the United Nations headquarters Wednesday. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rubs his eyes while Barack Obama speaks at the United Nations headquarters Wednesday. (Associated Press)
Globe Columnist / September 22, 2011

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THE STRUGGLE at the United Nations this week around Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid for full recognition from the Security Council came as something of a surprise to the Obama administration -- and as a stinging rebuke to its diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. This year’s UN General Assembly meeting, normally a star-studded event of parties, policies, and pashminas, is now a scene of crisis. Last week, trying to head off this very nightmare, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent special Middle East envoys Dennis Ross and David Hale to talk with Abbas. Their meeting last Thursday did not, obviously, turn out as planned.

The story of Ross and Hale’s back-channel efforts to steer Abbas toward negotiations and away from confrontation is lost in the noise surrounding the upcoming vote. But that story is essential to understanding why Abbas, a man known for his patience, would put the United States in such an awkward position.

Ross and Hale were determined to dissuade Abbas from going to the UN for either the Security Council vote, which few believed he would actually pursue, or the more likely bid to win observer status in the UN General Assembly. The stakes for the United States were heavy: The Obama administration desperately wanted to avoid voting against a Palestinian state in the Security Council or, much worse, using its Security Council veto to overrule a vote in favor of a Palestinian state.

Ross and Hale had some arguments in their favor: Enough other countries were uncomfortable with the idea of the United Nations circumventing the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation process that the Palestinians risked an embarrassing defeat. Moreover, even if the Palestinian Authority succeeded in getting enough support in the Security Council to force the United States to use its veto, the Palestinians would lose favor with a president who has made some concerted efforts to earn credibility in the Arab world. Whatever Ross and Hale actually argued, their meeting clearly with Abbas had the opposite effect.

According to Abbas’s advisers, a letter given to the Palestinian leader was the final straw. The letter has not been publicly disclosed by either party, but Arab media and commentators have zeroed in on a single reported sentence. In pushing for direct negotiations with Israel as an alternative to seeking UN recognition, the letter argued that the Palestinians need to consider Israel’s rightful security needs, as well as “demographic changes’’ that have occurred since the war in 1967.

Those “demographic changes’’ are, of course, the Jewish settlements built in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 war. The demographic change represents nearly a half-million Israelis. Neither the Israelis -- who are well aware that their nation’s policies on settlements are a way of undermining Palestinian land claims -- nor the Palestinians actually believe that the problem with the disputed territories is the result of some random population explosion. It was a determined policy to expand Israel at the expense of Palestinian claims, and not even diplomatic language ought to sugar-coat that very obvious fact.

By adopting the Israeli government’s terminology, Ross and Hale essentially convinced Abbas that the administration wasn’t going to exert enough pressure on Israel to suspend the settlements, and could no longer be trusted as an agent for bilateral talks.

It’s a surprising blunder for a man with Ross’s decades of experience in trying to close the deal on the peace process. While the leaders of the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority have all changed since the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, when success seemed tantalizingly close, Ross has not. The Palestinian Authority’s pointed critique of the US envoy - a Clinton-era stalwart who returned to government to focus on Iranian issues, but managed to outlast and outflank Obama’s first special envoy to the Middle East, former Senate majority leader George Mitchell - surely was intended for Obama’s ears.

Every crisis has a trigger moment, and at least in their telling, the Palestinians left a meeting with the US envoys more determined to go for broke. If the settlements were described merely as a demographic change, then there should be no mystery about why our diplomacy failed to prevent this week’s scramble. The use of misleading Israeli terminology to hide the intent of a settlement policy that Obama himself has condemned seems glaringly at odds with Obama’s hopes for a new relationship with the Arab world.

A letter is just a letter, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about so much more. It may well be that the parties can still resolve the crisis, and that Abbas’s move - either out of frustration with a conservative Israeli government or allegiance to the Arab Spring - will be viewed by history as a risky gesture born of frustration. The frustration should be the only thing understandable to all parties, as the much hoped-for accord that was coming together in the last year of the Clinton administration would have been preparing for its Bar Mitzvah.

But whatever the outcome of the wrangling at the United Nations, the whole contretemps has served to weaken the United States in the Arab world. That is why Americans deserve to hear from their own envoys, Ross and Hale, about why their meeting with Abbas went so badly awry, so that everyone can judge what happened and make the necessary “demographic’’ changes to produce a new generation of American envoys.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @juliettekayyem.