Analysis: Obama Mideast policy adrift amid crises

November 3, 2011 - 5:20 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The world's lone superpower has become superpowerless in one of the world's most intractable conflicts.

Boxed in by competing political and diplomatic agendas, the United States has lost the ability to stop either the Israelis or the Palestinians from acting against the interests of U.S.-backed peace efforts and against the express wishes of the United States.

Palestinians are pressing their bid for recognition at the United Nations and membership in U.N. agencies. The Israelis respond by accelerating settlement activity and withholding Palestinian tax revenue. The Obama administration is either unwilling or unable to push the two sides to the bargaining table or stop them from taking actions that further damage the prospects for relaunching moribund peace talks.

Although the U.S. has leverage in the forms of financial aid, military protection and diplomatic clout, it is stuck on the sidelines of the current crisis.

Meanwhile, decades-old legislation is forcing the U.S. to halt funding to U.N. organizations that grant Palestine membership. That restricts American influence in bodies like UNESCO, the International Atomic Energy Agency and World Health Organization that the administration deems necessary to protect vital U.S. national security, commercial and other interests.

Administration officials insist they have not lost influence.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday that "unilateral actions work against efforts to resume direct negotiations, and they do not advance the goal of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the two parties."

At the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Israelis and Palestinians were driving the peace process "in the wrong direction." She said the administration continues "to believe that our role, our leadership, in this process remains essential" and bristled when asked if the U.S. retained any influence over the parties. "Of course we do," she said.

Both sides are ignoring U.S. pleas to return to talks, and the U.S. is doing little else. U.S. efforts to blunt the Palestinian U.N. drive that sparked the latest round of recriminations have failed.

The administration knew since the summer that the Palestinians would not back down on their plan to seek U.N. statehood recognition as an end run around negotiations with Israel but could not come up with a way to deal with what Washington sees as a huge diplomatic problem. The U.S. and Israel fear that route could draw borders and impose conditions that Israel cannot accept. They insist that negotiations are the only path to statehood, but there have been no talks for a year.

The full U.N. has not acted on the September request, but U.N. agencies have begun to do so.

Months of U.S. lobbying produced only 13 other "no" votes when UNESCO overwhelming approved Palestine's membership by a 107 to 14 vote on Monday. Several U.S. allies and partners, including France and Russia, voted in favor. U.S. allies Britain and Japan abstained.

In response, the administration announced it was withholding $60 million in funding for UNESCO as required by U.S. law. It did not take action against the Palestinians nor did it express displeasure with countries that supported them.

Then Israel acted, announcing that it would accelerate housing construction in east Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state, and the West Bank. It also at least temporarily halted the transfer of $100 million in taxes that it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Again, the U.S. response came in words only, with Carney and Nuland speaking from the same script to say that Washington was "deeply disappointed" by the steps.

Now, hamstrung in an uncertain budget and pre-election season by a Congress that refuses to censure Israel and is eager to punish the Palestinians for their U.N. aspirations, the administration is caught in a diplomatically weak and awkward position.

It could threaten to withhold the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid it provides the Palestinian Authority each year if the Palestinians don't stop their U.N. push. But it won't because it doesn't want to destabilize Palestinian institutions or endanger security gains the Palestinians have made and even the Israelis have applauded. In a bizarre twist, the administration has sought help from Israeli officials in lobbying Congress not to cut Palestinian aid, even as Israel itself is withholding tax money the Palestinians need to run their government.

It could try to threaten to withhold some of the roughly $3 billion in assistance that the U.S. provides to Israel each year if the Israelis don't halt housing construction in disputed areas or make some other gesture to the Palestinians. But Congress won't hear of it and such a step is politically unpalatable for a president seeking re-election next year.

The administration could forcefully press Congress to waive the ban on U.S. funding for U.N. agencies that recognize Palestine, arguing that it puts American and Israeli interests at risk. But, fearing a backlash from conservative lawmakers already intent on slashing foreign aid and operations spending, it cannot push the matter too hard. So once again, it is in the odd position of looking to Israel for help, urging Israeli officials to tell U.S. lawmakers that America's presence in U.N. bodies is important, especially because the U.S. is often Israel's sole ally in such forums.

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Lee covers the State Department and U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press.