By Joel Brinkley


As Palestinians head to the United Nations this week, President Obama faces one of the most excruciating dilemmas of his presidency, a predicament partly of his own making.

After four decades of failed negotiations with Israel, Palestinians are hoping the U.N. will finally grant them a sovereign state of their own -- on the West Bank, where most of them live.

But when they ask the Security Council to vote in favor of that, Obama is vowing to veto the request. That would be cataclysmic for the United States, for Israel and for the Palestinians.

Think about it. Even as Israel's traditional patron state, the U.S. is making tenuous gains in the Arab world, by participating in NATO's action in Libya and providing aid to rebel groups in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere.

With the veto, all of that would be undone. The U.S. would be a pariah once again. In fact, Saudi Arabia, another of Washington's traditional allies in the region, is warning that it will curtail relations with America and pursue policies anathematic to Washington.

"The United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people," Turki al-Faisal, a member of the Saudi royal family, wrote in the New York Times on Monday. "Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with the United States in the same way it historically has."

As for the Palestinians, they'd be left with no further options but to take their case to the U.N. General Assembly, where a vast majority of the U.N.'s 193 member states would vote in favor of Palestinian statehood. Israeli officials told me they believe they might win no more than about 15 percent or 20 percent of the vote.

In that case, the Palestinians would come away with a symbolic victory with no weight of law. At that point, Israel has threatened to cut off funds to the West Bank, annex territory -- and worse. Frustrated Palestinians may turn to violence.

Well, by definition a dilemma offers two choices. What would happen if Obama did not veto the statehood resolution? He would anger Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right-wing settler allies. However, many if not most Israelis would be quiescent or even pleased.

In the United States, he would irritate some American Jews but certainly not all. On Monday, the American branch of the Israeli group Peace Now wrote: "We recognize that there are important positive elements in the U.N. effort, including the fact that it reflects a continued commitment to achieving progress through non-violent means."

Millions of evangelical Christians, fervent supporters of the Israeli right, would be furious. Many if not most of them, however, vote Republican anyway.

Proponents of the Palestinians' U.N. initiative note that even if they win full recognition as a sovereign state, thousands of Israeli troops will still occupy the West Bank, and more than 350,000 Jewish settlers will still live there. At that point, Israel would have to negotiate peace -- and with no preconditions. Politically, at least, this time Palestinians would stand on a more equal footing. (Gaza, hopefully, would be left out of this for now. Its Hamas rulers are nothing more than irredeemable, unrepentant mass murderers.)

Netanyahu has used every excuse and stratagem to evade negotiations. That's one reason Israel is in such trouble right now. Within the last few days, Israel's ambassador to Egypt had to flee as angry mobs attacked the embassy. The ambassador to Turkey was expelled.

Forcing Netanyahu to the negotiations table would be a positive development for Israel's position in the region and the world. And making this about-face would help Obama make up for his blunder early in his term.

Soon after taking office, Obama decided to wade into the Middle East peace dispute. He demanded that Israel freeze settlement growth. Well, every president since Jimmy Carter has pushed Israel to end settlement growth. Every one of them has failed. To open with that request was simply naive.

Nonetheless, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, had little choice but to adopt that as his own policy. Obama "was the one who declared that settlement construction must be stopped," Abbas said back then. "The United States says it, Europe says it and the whole world is saying it. Why should I not say it?" Negotiations have foundered on that point ever since.

Obama is trapped between the figurative rock and hard place. If it were me, when the Palestine resolution came up for a vote, I would abstain.


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