Analysis: US, peace talks hurt most by PA UNESCO bid

PA diplomatic moves and Israel's reactions create a series of unappealing choices for White House before presidential election.

US President Barack Obama 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON  - The Palestinians' success in joining UNESCO and Israel's immediate retaliation has two main casualties: the peace process and the Obama administration.
Monday's vote by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization to grant full Palestinian membership despite US and Israeli objections exposed how little leverage Washington has on either side. It forced the Obama administration to withhold $60 million from the agency.
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The vote appears to have dramatically lengthened the odds of resuming peace talks, which collapsed more than a year ago despite the efforts of President Barack Obama.
And it triggered what some analysts see as an overreaction by Israel, which on Tuesday announced plans to speed up settlement building and to withhold, at least temporarily, customs revenues and other fees that it collects for the Palestinians.
The biggest loser, it seems, is the United States and its long-shot hope of coaxing both sides back into negotiations.
"There are consequences in terms of the environment for getting these parties back to the table - which is going in the wrong direction," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
Another US official said the White House already had little stomach for running the domestic and foreign political risk entailed in launching any new peace initiative, and the latest developments have made such a move even more doubtful.
"It's not that it's totally hopeless but there's very little reason for any optimism in the near-term," the official said.
This official said the Obama administration was caught off guard by the strength of Israel's retaliation.
Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator under Prime Minister Ehud Barak who is now at the New American Foundation think tank in Washington, said, "The Palestinian strategy right now is hurting America more than it's hurting Israel."
Both countries argue that the Palestinians can only achieve statehood through direct peace talks, and reject any moves through which UN agencies would unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state. But the Palestinians have forged ahead, and at UNESCO scored their first real success with a lopsided vote that prompted Israel's speedy retaliation.
The Palestinian diplomatic moves, and Israel's reaction, create a series of unappealing choices for the White House before the 2012 US presidential election in which it would prefer not to alienate Jewish voters, some of whom are already unhappy with Obama.
Showing its solidarity with Israel, Washington found itself in a minority of 14 voting against Palestinian membership in UNESCO, with 107 countries voting in favor and 52 - including close allies such as Britain - abstaining.
The Obama administration was forced by US law to cut off funding for the UN cultural agency, a step the State Department has said is not in America's national interest and could lead to a dangerous "cascade effect" if other UN agencies follow suit.
"In an election year, supporting the U.N. over Israel is an overwhelming political loser," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.