US, Israel isolated as UN votes to upgrade Palestine status (Updated)

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The United States and Israel appeared headed for a crushing defeat Thursday, as a vast majority of the world’s countries signaled they would vote in favor of the Palestinian bid to receive upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. But some American diplomats and Israeli politicians said the diplomatic setback could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the politically cautious approach to the peace process it has taken over the past year.

The United States-Israeli position opposing the resolution appeared to be overwhelmingly isolated, with only around 10 countries expected to vote against the Palestinian measure, compared with some 150 expected to vote in favor.

(Update: As expected, the UN voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, with 138 nations voting in favor, 41 abstentions, and 9 votes against the measure. The no votes were: the US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.)

Most strikingly, every country in Europe save for one signaled they were likely to abstain or vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood bid, including two of Israel’s closet allies. Germany, which had been expected to vote against the measure, abstained, and Italy, expected to abstain, said Thursday it would vote for the Palestinian status upgrade, along with France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, and Austria. Britain abstained. S(o did Australia, following an uproar in the ruling party against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s original intention to vote against the resolution.)

(Watch the vote at the UN General Assembly live here:)

The US diplomatic defeat could push the Obama administration to reconsider its recent hands-off approach to the peace process, following Israeli resistance to Obama’s first term efforts to bring the parties to the peace table, some American diplomats said. However, they acknowledged, Israel’s leadership showed few signs that it was prepared to reconsider its campaign to portray the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as recalcitrant, even following the Gaza conflict this month, and Hamas’ growing political clout in the region.

“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States cause we tried very hard to postpone [this vote] and push it off the agenda altogether,” former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right.”

Such a review “may lead the President to conclude that what we thought was right thing to do last year in 2011 may not be right thing in 2012,” Kurtzer continued. “The circumstances are different—especially after what happened last week in Gaza, (when) the entire attention of the world was only focused on Hamas…the PLO was not just feeling marginalized, but the built-up frustration of kind of being the good boys.”

“Abbas gets his victory today at the UN. And that is where I think there is some diplomatic opportunity for the United States to help …persuade Abbas to have a timetable favorable to the President in terms of his next moves or non moves,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, adding he saw signs that the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may next move towards a unity government.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Wednesday in an apparent last ditch effort to try to dissuade him from the move. (The photo above suggests the tone of their meeting was rather grim.) Burns “made a personal appeal to … Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood,” the Associated Press reported. “The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.”

Meantime, several key Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Israel and the US to support the Palestinian measure, noting it was headed for certain victory anyway, and that the resolution’s text essentially supports the vision for a two state solution that was once the consensus position of the Israeli (and American) mainstream. Continue reading

Sudan accuses Israel of striking Khartoum arms factory

Sudan has accused Israel of being behind air strikes that targeted a Khartoum military complex around midnight Wednesday. The strikes, reportedly carried out by four aircraft, killed two people and caused a huge, fiery explosion at an arms factory located at a Sudanese army complex, local reports said.

“We think Israel did the bombing,” Sudan Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told a press conference Wednesday, the AAP news service reported, adding that Khartoum “reserve(s) the right” to respond at a “place and time” of its choosing.

Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), declined to comment on the Sudanese charge. “I will not comment on those reports,” Leibovich told journalists Wednesday, speaking on a press call organized by the Israel Project.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly refused comment, telling reporters in Israel Wednesday, “I have nothing to say about this thing,” Reuters reported.

Israel similarly did not confirm or deny its widely reported role in 2009 strikes on alleged weapons convoys in Sudan. But Israeli analysts have given broad credence to the claims, noting Israel suspects that Sudan is being used as a transit hub for Iran arms supplied to militant groups in Gaza via Sudan and Egypt.

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Clinton in Israel: Iran nuclear proposals “non-starters”

Iran’s proposals to date in three rounds of nuclear talks with the P5+1 are “non-starters,” and suggest Iran’s leadership has not yet made the decision to compromise on its nuclear program, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday in Israel.

“I made very clear that the proposals that we have seen from Iran thus far within the P5+1 negotiations are non-starters,” Clinton told reporters after a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, CNN reported.

“Despite three rounds of talks, Iran has yet to make a strategic decision to address the international community’s concerns and fulfill their obligations under the IAEA and the UN Security Council,” Clinton said. “The choice is ultimately Iran’s to make.”

Iran is willing to discuss halting its 20% enrichment, but has balked to date at doing so without getting upfront recognition of its right to enrich for energy purposes.

“The issue of the 20% enrichment …is an issue that could be discussed and decided,” Iran’s UN envoy Mohammad Khazaee told Al Monitor in an interview July 12. “It is not off the table. … It is possible to close the gap.”

Clinton conducted the most high-profile visit of a recent “cavalcade” of high-ranking American officials traveling to Israel to huddle on Iran. Among the parade of senior US visitors: National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the coming weeks.

The intense US-Israel consultations are aimed, from Washington’s perspective, at trying to reassure Israel’s leadership not to conduct strikes on Iran, likely in the fall. Despite Clinton’s assertion Monday that the United States and Israel are currently “on the same page” on Iran, Israeli leaders have apparently not eased American concerns about their intentions.

“For the first time on the agenda are serious crippling sanctions,” former Israeli Knesset Defense and Security Committee member Ephraim Sneh said at a July 12th round-table hosted by the Israel Policy Forum in New York, referring to tough new European Union sanctions on the import of Iranian oil, which went into effect July 1. “We have hardly two months to implement them. I advise those who can implement them, ‘Don’t put Israel in a corner.'”

Asked what specifically is in two months–i.e., September, Sneh said that Israel’s more limited military capabilities constrain its timetable and calendar for action. Continue reading