For a while now, the United States has been pulling off a delicate regional balancing act in the Middle East. On the one hand, Israel is an important American client there, our most militarily potent ally and one with a meaningful society-to-society relationship with the American people. On the other hand, the Persian Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia have the oil that, in concrete terms, is what makes the region important. For decades, the aim of American policy has been to manage this tension by trying to simultaneously be Israel’s best friend and also be a broker of regional peace. When it works at its best, this produces things like the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. But over the past ten years, Israeli politics has swung way to the right. Meanwhile, over just the past few years Benjamin Netanyahu has conclusively proven that the US political system won’t deliver any negative consequences to Israel no matter what they do, and Arab states have become more sensitive to public opinion in their own countries.
Now we have Prince Turki al-Faisal threatening that an American veto of a Palestinian statehood resolution at the United Nations will lead to a downgrade of U.S.-Saudi relations:
Saudi Arabia would no longer be able to cooperate with America in the same way it historically has. With most of the Arab world in upheaval, the “special relationship” between Saudi Arabia and the United States would increasingly be seen as toxic by the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims, who demand justice for the Palestinian people.
Saudi leaders would be forced by domestic and regional pressures to adopt a far more independent and assertive foreign policy. Like our recent military support for Bahrain’s monarchy, which America opposed, Saudi Arabia would pursue other policies at odds with those of the United States, including opposing the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq and refusing to open an embassy there despite American pressure to do so. The Saudi government might part ways with Washington in Afghanistan and Yemen as well.
The Palestinian people deserve statehood and all that it entails: official recognition, endorsement by international organizations, the ability to deal with Israel on more equal footing and the opportunity to live in peace and security.
I don’t really think this should rank high on the list of reasons to be concerned about fair treatment of the Palestinians. But historically, this concern that an unduly one-sided tilt toward Israel would undermine other aspects of the American hegemonic project has offered some useful ballast to the policy debate in the nation’s capital. Today, nobody seems to be even slightly considering doing anything other than vetoing a resolution. The only American effort to avoid the ensuing diplomatic trainwreck is a far-fetched scheme to try to strong-arm the Palestinians into not asking for a vote.