Ongoing Arab-Israeli Conflict Leaves U.S. Isolated

The Obama administration's flagging efforts to revive Arab-Israeli peace talks took another turn in the wrong direction this week. The Palestinians overcame U.S. opposition and won diplomatic recognition by UNESCO, becoming a new member state of the U.N.'s cultural and scientific agency. They've vowed to keep seeking such recognition elsewhere in the U.N system. Israel responded by speeding up settlement construction. U.S. officials say those moves are pushing the parties further away from a peace process, but both sides seem determined to move in opposition directions, leaving the U.S. looking weak and isolated on this issue.

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U.S. efforts to revive Arab-Israeli peace talks hit another snag this week. The Palestinians overcame U.S. opposition and won enhanced diplomatic recognition by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. Israel responded by speeding up settlement construction in occupied territories, and by withholding Palestinian tax revenues. U.S. officials criticized both sides from moving further away from peace.

But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians seem interested in U.S. advice.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is worried that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spinning in the wrong direction. She argues that the Palestinian moves at the U.N. are diverting the international community's attention, while the Israeli response was, as she put it, deeply disappointing.

VICTORIA NULAND: Neither of these sets of actions is helpful to the environment of getting back to the negotiating table. And obviously, there's an action-reaction here that is not helpful. So we're trying to get these parties into a positive cycle of engagement.

KELEMEN: But the U.S. has few levers to pull. There's no talk of withholding any of the billions of dollars a year it gives to Israel. And the Obama administration has actually been lobbying Congress to keep giving millions of dollars to the Palestinian Authority, arguing that it is in U.S. and Israel's security interests to do so.

Only UNESCO has suffered consequences because, as Nuland explains, the U.S. is required by laws enacted two decades ago to cut funding to any agency that recognizes Palestine.

NULAND: The important reality that we have to grapple with, and that the world has to grapple with, is that today we are living under U.S. legislation which requires us to cut off U.S. funding to any U.N. agencies that go in the direction that UNESCO has gone in.

KELEMEN: The same would be true if the Palestinians seek full membership in the World Health Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and other U.N. bodies that the U.S. wants to support. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is expressing concern about this.

Palestinian negotiator Nabil Shaath says the Palestinians will apply to those agencies despite the U.S. position.

DR. NABIL SHAATH: Should the United States bind itself with an adversarial position on the rights of the Palestinians that was taken back in 1990? It's unbelievable. I don't understand it.

KELEMEN: Shaath says the Palestinians also expect a vote this month by the U.N. Security Council on their membership application to join the United Nations as a member state. The U.S. has vowed to veto, but may not have to if it can convince enough countries to abstain or oppose it. The U.S. has been lobbying countries like Bosnia, where the Muslim, Croat and Serb presidents can't agree what to do.

Shaath says the Palestinian goal is not to embarrass the U.S. or avoid talks with the Israelis.

SHAATH: What is wrong with the Palestinians seeking recognition from the world as a state under occupation, hoping to negotiate with its occupier a two-state solution?

KELEMEN: He was speaking on the sidelines of a conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Former Secretary of State James Baker was also there, saying he understands the Palestinians are trying to level the playing field by enhancing their diplomatic and legal standing, vis-à-vis Israel. Baker just doesn't think it will work.

JAMES BAKER: The only way you get to real peace is to negotiate peace. You can't create peace unilaterally. Israel can't create peace by unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, any more than Palestinians can create peace by unilaterally going to the U.N. You have to negotiate peace if you are gong to have a lasting peace.

KELEMEN: And again, Baker doesn't expect any serious negotiations while the U.S. is in election mode. The Palestinians remain divided politically and Israel does not have, as he puts it, a government that is leaning forward for peace.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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