President Obama’s decision not to block a UN Security Council resolution declaring Israeli settlements on the West Bank illegal can be read many ways. In part, it’s an Obama counter-strike against President-elect Trump’s unconventional moves aimed at sidelining Obama before the Inauguration. In part, it’s payback from the White House against a Netanyahu government that the White House feels has frustrated its quest for peace in the Middle East. In part, it’s a principled statement of sincere belief by a large group in the White House, representing many in the Democratic Party, reflecting the deep convictions of many American liberals and, especially, of American liberal Jews, about right and wrong in the modern Middle East. If American Jews were to hold a referendum on settlement policy, it is likely that the “no” side would win; American Jews are far more liberal than their counterparts in Israel, and the gap between the two communities is growing rather than shrinking over time.
Many Palestinians and many of their sympathizers would like to see this vote as a landmark victory for the Palestinian cause in a long campaign to isolate Israel diplomatically and to delegitimize it morally in the eyes of the world. The vote is certainly a propaganda victory for the Palestinian cause, but it does nothing to help the Palestinians in practical terms. Indeed, a sober look at the situation suggests that the Palestinians have not been this weak, this divided or this helpless in many decades. Almost everywhere one looks around the world, the net effect of the policies of the Obama presidency has been to undermine the movements and the values that the President hoped to support; the cause of the Palestinians and the quest for the two state solution are no exceptions to the rule.
Palestinians have been organizing to fight Zionism for well over 100 years; during all that time the fundamental problems of the Palestinians have come from the weakness of Palestinian political leadership and the lack of capacity of Palestinian institutions. During the Mandate period when Palestine was under British rule, the Jews organized a proto-state and a political leadership that was able to make the numerically smaller Jewish community much more effective and powerful on the ground than their Palestinian Arab rivals. The Palestinian Arabs were cursed by family and clan divisions, and perhaps most of all by the incompetent leadership of the Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini, and were politically divided, militarily impotent and diplomatically inept in the most critical hours of their history.
Today the Palestinians have fixed the third problem; their diplomacy is far more accomplished and effective than it was in the 1940s and before. But they continue to fall farther and farther behind the Israelis when it comes to political organization and military power. Not only have the Palestinian territories devolved into two micro-states (Gaza and the West Bank, so that instead of a two-state solution one would have to speak of a three state solution barring a Palestinian civil war), but both Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank have become increasingly corrupt, ineffective and exhausted. Both of the major Palestinian political organizations depend on foreign paymasters to cover their expenses; neither has shown much ability to build a real state or to solve the problems of the Palestinian people.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic success of the very professional and dedicated cadre of Palestinian representatives and notables who represent Palestinian interests to the international community has created a strong base of support for Palestinian aspirations in much of the world. But the last few years have seen a catastrophic decline in the power of Palestinian allies to affect events on the ground. The Sunni Arabs, the most natural if always self-interested and undependable allies of the Palestinian cause, are so weak and divided that they look to Israel as a defender of the Sunni world against the Persians and the Shi’a. The European Union has never been less able to exert influence beyond its frontiers. The incapacity of the United Nations to do anything concrete in the Middle East has never been more obvious; ask the people of Aleppo how much of a player the United Nations really is. The end of the Obama administration would have been a setback for the Palestinians even if Hillary Clinton had been the next President; with the succession of Donald Trump the United States appears to be shifting toward a pro-Likud orientation in its Israel policy. Putin has broken from the Russian tradition of sympathy for the Palestinians; Erdogan at least for now is prioritizing his need for Israeli support over his instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians and in any case, his identification with Hamas threatens to perpetuate rather than to heal Palestinian weakness and division.
Meanwhile, inside Israel, the pro-settlement Right senses that this unprecedented moment of Palestinian weakness offers a historic opportunity.
No vote in the impotent echo chamber of the Security Council can change any of these facts. What will come of this constellation of events is hard to predict, but history appears to be teaching the Palestinians another tough lesson: diplomatic success when not backed by military and political effectiveness does not help you much in the long run.