You can't blame the Palestinians for trying. Over the last few years, the Obama Administration has encouraged the Palestinians to make bold moves. While shifting U.S. policy away from Israel, President Obama clearly and definitively told the Palestinians to reject violence but plan for statehood. Within five months of taking office, Obama spoke in Cairo to a massive Muslim audience in what the White House billed as the President's first major address on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Arab leaders were hopeful and sat waiting to see if the new President of the United States with a Muslim father would change the status quo. And Obama didn't disappoint. In his speech, Obama made clear: "I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world." The President went on to celebrate the Muslim faith like no other U.S. leader had. Arab leaders believed their time for equality had come -- and Obama was on their side.
In that June 2009 speech, Obama apologized for American military might, Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq war, colonialism and even what he called our "self-interested empire." The Arab audience had found an American who understood them. After rebuking anti-Semitism and the tragedies of the Holocaust, Obama made an unusual comparison: "On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people -- Muslims and Christians -- have suffered in pursuit of a homeland." Obama had squarely placed Muslims and Christians on one side and against Israel. He went on to say, "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own." It was the early sign Arab leaders were looking for from the new President. They saw the President's comparison between the Holocaust and the plight of the Palestinians as an indication that statehood and international acceptance would come. Israeli leaders saw the comparison as a sign that the U.S. President could make radical changes to venerable American-Israeli policies.
After the Cairo speech, the Obama team tried to assure the Israeli government that the President would not take sides. But soon thereafter, Administration officials did. Despite long-standing U.S. policy to encourage the parties to confront their issues at the bargaining table and to adamantly reject any outside influence making unilateral decisions, Obama himself called for an end to settlements and to start negotiations using the pre-1967 borders. The Israelis' outright rejection of Obama's pronouncements were also seen by the Palestinians that Obama was going to keep the pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Obama's Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, consistently skipped Security Council meetings when Israel needed defending and even failed to show up for the emergency session on the Gaza Flotilla incident. The Israelis felt abandoned and the Palestinians were optimistic that the U.S. was not going to protect Israel at all costs.
But in perhaps the boldest U.S. move, Rice secretly negotiated with the Arabs on acceptable language for a possible UN resolution to condemn Israel's settlement activity. Rice's move sent a strong and new message that making policy, rather than just encouraging the two sides to negotiate directly, may not garner an automatic U.S. veto. The Arabs were focused and excited at their new found power. When the Israelis got wind of the scheme, they cried foul. Conservative lawmakers quickly joined forces with the Israeli government to force Obama to change his position. In February of 2011, the U.S. vetoed a UN resolution on Israeli settlements that Susan Rice had started negotiations on with the Arabs. The Palestinians were furious and rightly so. After all, they had just spent weeks with Rice going back and forth on acceptable language to make Israeli settlement activity a violation of international law. Rice's rejection of the long-standing U.S. position of only encouraging direct negotiations led the Arabs to believe they were on a different path. Previous U.S. Administrations had bluntly threatened vetos on resolutions that made unilateral declarations but Obama's team was clearly open to the idea.
Arab diplomats also point to Obama's 2010 statement that he wanted to see Palestine a member of the UN by September 2011 as proof that he wants them to make bold moves. While Obama has sent the same lower level diplomats multiple times to the region to encourage direct negotiations, he hasn't sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It's no wonder the two sides haven't spoken formally since September 2010. Instead, the Obama strategy has been to push the Israelis to accept Palestinian demands even though their unity government includes Hamas, a group the U.S. government classifies as a terrorist organization.
The Arabs have been waiting for Obama to make his move for quite some time. Before the beginning of the Obama Administration in January 2009, candidate Obama spoke of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict in simple terms. His belief that he could bring the opposing sides together to find a solution was based on the premise that he is a likeable guy and if he could just get the two sides to sit down together their issues would be secondary. The Arabs saw Obama's characterization of Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his willingness to directly negotiate with Hugo Chavez his first year in office as promising. While Obama's bold moves once prompted Hillary Clinton to call him "irresponsible and frankly naïve" during her primary race against him, the Palestinians believed he would be willing to push back on Netanyahu too.
So it's no wonder Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas exclaimed Friday, "We are going to the Security Council." Despite some media reports that the U.S. has been working hard to convince the Palestinians to drop their bid for statehood at the UN, the Administration's late discussions with lower level diplomats signals something different. U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice spent this past week in what seemed anything but frantic. She hosted a documentary film screening, tweeted about the International Day of Democracy and Friday spent the afternoon at a local New York City high school with Congressman Joe Crowley at what was billed as a "Back-to-School" event. She didn't even mention Israel or Palestine.
With all the signals the Obama administration has given the Arabs, no one should blame the Palestinians for seeking a reliably welcoming audience. President Obama raised their hopes and made promises that never materialized. The Palestinians are smart to appeal to a consistently friendlier, anti-Israel audience such as the UN. They can't trust the Obama team -- and neither can the Israelis.