Palestinians' UN blow reveals extent of Israel's influence on US

Draft report signals no consensus on statehood bid which means UN vote may not go forward.

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WASHINGTON // With no consensus in the UN's Security Council over a Palestinian statehood application, US efforts to avoid having to cast a veto on the issue appear to have paid off.

A draft report written by the membership committee looking into the Palestinian application said it had been unable to make a "unanimous recommendation" to the Security Council. It is now possible that a vote may not even go ahead.

The news comes a day after the Obama administration succeeded in persuading the US Congress, with a little help from Israel, to release US$200 million (Dh734.6m) in security aid to the Palestinian Authority.

It ends a series of setbacks for the administration over the Palestinian issue, including a private exchange about Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, overheard at the G20 summit, and Palestinian membership of Unesco, the UN's cultural agency.

But the Palestinian UN gambit has also thrown into sharp relief the extent to which years of lobbying by pro-Israel groups in the US has narrowed the room for manoeuvre a US administration has on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a situation exacerbated as campaigning for the 2012 presidential elections start to grind into gear.

The four-page draft report from the membership committee was circulated to all 15-members of the Security Council on Tuesday and indicated that there was not enough support in the council to bring the Palestinian application for full membership to a vote on Friday, when the council meets to discuss the issue.

Riyad Malki, the Palestinian foreign minister, on Tuesday acknowledged that, due to "the US counter effort and intervention ... we are not going to have these nine votes."

Yesterday, Palestinian officials said they were resigned to defeat and would instead seek an upgraded observer status that would give them access to key international organisations. They spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Since the report is in draft form, State Department officials yesterday refused to comment. But the news will be met with relief in Washington, which has lobbied hard to avoid having to cast a veto.

The administration says it supports Palestinian statehood, but rejects any move by Palestinians to secure independence outside bilateral negotiations with Israel. More than a year after Barack Obama, the US president, launched a new round of negotiations with the assertion that a Palestinian state was possible in a year, however, diplomatic efforts remain frozen over the issue of Israeli settlement building.

Representatives of the Quartet of Middle East mediators - Russia, the EU, the US and the UN - are due to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials next week in a bid to restart negotiations, but it is not clear what they are bringing to the table that could convince the Palestinians that Israel is serious about the talks.

Palestinians have been frustrated by Israel's unwillingness to define the framework for talks, specifically on borders, as well as the Israeli refusal to entertain a full settlement construction freeze. For its part, Israel has rejected what it calls Palestinian preconditions.

But the administration will be buoyed by news that Congress will not have to follow through on threats to end US security assistance to the Palestinians.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, head of the Foreign Affairs' Committee in the House of Representatives, blocked US$189 million (Dh694m)in late August when it became clear Palestinians were serious about their UN application.

After pressure from the White House, which also asked the Israeli government to intervene, Ms Ros-Lehtinen relented in recent weeks, citing administration assurances and the non-objection of the Israeli government to the aid.

The Florida legislator, a hard-core Israel supporter, is still blocking US$190m that would have gone to infrastructure projects.

The release of the funds will also provide some relief to an administration that now has to deal with the fallout of an off-microphone exchange between Mr Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, about their mutual exasperation with Mr Netanyahu.

The White House has so far refused to comment, and the incident has not made as loud as splash as might have been expected. The media in America have been consumed with the travails of Herman Cain, a Republican presidential hopeful whose unexpected front-runner status has recently taken a hit as a number of allegations of past sexual harassment have come to light.

Nevertheless, that the US administration had to appeal to the Israeli government to help it convince Congress to release funds to the PA indicates how deeply the American legislature is in thrall to pro-Israel groups in the country.

Last week, the US had to withhold its funding of Unesco after the Palestinians were admitted as members. Under a law dating back to the 1990s, the US is barred from giving any funds to any UN agency that admits Palestinians as full members absent a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

State Department officials acknowledged at the time that ending the funding could adversely affect US interests. "If we don't pay into these organisations, we could lose our ability to influence their actions so we are making the case to members of Congress that at some point we need some flexibility," one official said last week on condition of anonymity.

Palestinians are next poised to seek membership of the World Health Organization. Should they be accepted there, the body that coordinates international measures against pandemics, among other health crises, would also lose US funding under the same law.

The law was originally passed by Congress due to the influence of pro-Israel lobbying groups, such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, said Stephen Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University and co-author of The Israel Lobby, a critical look at the influence of pro-Israel organisations on US foreign policy.

It is, he said, "a perfect illustration of how the lobby's influence leads to policies that are not in the overall national interest of the United States."

And while, Mr Walt added, it was "widely understood" that the special relationship with Israel was "increasingly harmful" to the US, few in Washington are prepared to say it out loud, not least in an election year when the administration "will bend over backwards to portray itself as bending over backwards" to defend Israel.

"It is, in a sense, a dirty little secret that nobody wants to admit."