U.S. Shouldn't Punish Those Supporting Palestine

The United States can't practically sanction all countries voting to support Palestine in the U.N. General Assembly.

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United Nations security check the General Assembly hall with bomb sniffing dogs prior to the 61st session of the U.N. General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2006 at U.N. headquarters.

Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

Today the United Nations General Assembly will vote overwhelmingly to give Palestine nonvoting observer status, a step up from its current position. The United States will be almost alone in voting "No," joined by Canada, Palau, and the Solomon Islands. Having succeeded in blocking the measure at the Security Council last year, the United States now has the pleasure of voting in splendid isolation in the General Assembly, where no state has a veto. Relatively few of our allies, and Israel's other close friends, will even abstain, in what Haaretz. Barak Ravid calls "a full-on landslide."

What's fascinating about this vote is not the choreography in New York, but the way world reaction has split. You might predict that it would fall into three categories: enthusiasm, yawns, and rage. What you might not predict is that no one but West Bank Palestinians is in the first category; and that the "yawns" category spans from Hamas leadership to Elliott Abrams. Anytime Hamas and Abrams, who brought us George W. Bush's Israel policy, agree on something, it's worth taking a closer look. Abrams writes that what matters is what Palestine does next, and he is surely right about that. He notes that the Israeli government is taking this line of relative unconcern as well.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

So who is left in the rage category?

That would be GOP senators who yesterday introduced a cascade of legislation that would not only penalize any U.N. agency which admits Palestine by cutting off U.S. contributions, but would sanction any country that votes in favor by cutting 20 percent of U.S. assistance.

Since there are expected to be 150 countries voting in favor, perhaps this is the senators' contribution to deficit reduction. But let's pause and reflect.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

Is it really in anyone's interest for the United States to sanction close U.S. allies France, Australia, or Japan? Didn't we just go through a presidential campaign in which the GOP candidate urged that U.S. policy be more favorable to our allies?

Then there are the countries in the region on whom we depend to help Israel manage relations with its neighbors: Jordan, and above all, Egypt. If the United States was going to sanction Egypt, wouldn't it be over its president's dictatorial power grab that has brought hundreds of thousands into the streets, not its Israel-Palestine policies, which were lauded as essential to ending the Israeli-Hamas fighting just last week?

Then there are the countries which the United States gives substantial assistance to fight Islamic extremist—Jordan and Egypt again, also Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Would we be ready to compromise our counterterror operations in these places over a vote that even Israel thinks is not very meaningful? 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Last, but certainly not least, the countries with whom our diplomats are permanently wrangling about other sanctions: Russia and China. We want more—and the same senators are pushing for legislation for even more—from them on Iran sanctions. We want them to lean hard on North Korea. We want them to lift the U.N. vetoes that have condemned thousands to death in Syria's ongoing civil war. Does Palestinian U.N. observer status really threaten U.S. interests as much as nuclear weapons or a dictator unleashing tens of thousands of civilian deaths?

A central challenge for our foreign policy across the board is finding ways to husband and apply our resources wisely, even conservatively. This kind of proposal may feel good—but wastes our influence profligately. In the days ahead, there will be more proposals for how the United States responds to the U.N. vote. Last year's threats to cut U.S. support to U.N. agencies achieved nothing to temper today's vote, nothing to promote peace on the ground, nothing to discredit those who argue that violence is the only way forward. The key question for any legislative proposal this year is whether there is any reason to believe it will do better to empower forces for nonviolence and conciliation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—or disempower them and allow more extreme voices to take their place.

  • Read Laurel Miller: Morsi's Power Grab Doesn't Mean Egypt Is Doomed
  • Read Ilan Berman: U.S. Sanctions Push Iran to Foreign Meddling
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