11/05/2011 10:22 EDT | Updated 01/06/2012 05:12 EST

Abbas' Last Victory?

Mahmoud Abbas are seeking UN recognition of Palestinian statehood: statehood without peace. Already they have gained one victory: acceptance as a full member of UNESCO. Yet this victory may be their last.


Two can play at this game. Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority have abandoned negotiations with Israel. They are seeking UN recognition of Palestinian statehood: statehood without peace. Already they have gained one victory: acceptance as a full member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Yet this victory may be their last.

The United States has cut off its support for UNESCO, a warning to other UN agencies to take care. Meanwhile, Israel and friends of Israel are emulating the Palestinian example: unilaterally settling issues that the Palestinians refuse to negotiate. One important example of this pro-Israeli approach is the legal case of Zivotofsky vs. Clinton, to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

The question in the case: Can a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem cite his or her birthplace as "Jerusalem, Israel" in his or her passport? Or only (as now) "Jerusalem," without any further mention of any country?

The issue might seem trivial. After all, how much does it matter what a passport says? Since the 1990s, U.S. citizens born in Taiwan have been allowed to carry passports that cite "Taiwan" as if it were a distinct country. That legal nicety neither adds to nor detracts anything from Taiwan's security with regard to its menacing neighbor on the Chinese mainland. Besides, the technical issue before the Supreme Court in Zivotofsky is not the status of Jerusalem itself. The issue is the balance of power between Congress and the executive. The Supreme Court will consider whether Congress can issue such a directive to the executive branch. And that issue is unaffected by whether the passports say "Jerusalem, Israel" or "Timbuctoo, TimHortonstan."

And yet of course everybody involved recognizes that the outcome of the Zivotofsky case will carry immense symbolic significance regardless of its practical effect. So much so, in fact, that the Obama administration has scoured the electronic records of the U.S. government to scrub every instance of any mention of "Jerusalem, Israel" in any previous administration document.

For example, until Aug. 9 of this year, the White House website carried a photo captioned: "Vice President Joe Biden laughs with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, Israel, March 9, 2010." That day, the photo was recaptioned: "Vice President Joe Biden laughs with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010."

Why does the Obama administration care?

Think back to the president's big May 19, 2011, speech on the Middle East peace process. The president identified four crucial issues for peace between Israel and the Palestinians: borders, security, refugees and Jerusalem. Previously, the United States had insisted that these issues be resolved between the parties. The United States would act as a broker, but it would not express its own view on how these issues should be resolved.

On May 19, the president departed from prior policy and expressed a view on one -- but only one -- of the four issues: borders. "The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states." In effect, the president allowed the Palestinian initiative at the UN to force his hand on the border question -- even as he held Israel at bay on the other three issues.

(The president's answer on security, although much vaguer than his answer on borders, was even more troubling:

"Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism; to stop the infiltration of weapons; and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be co-ordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. The duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated."

Translation: In the future, Israeli security will ultimately depend on Palestinian co-operation. Good luck with that.)

The Zivotofsky case attempts to press the Obama administration on Jerusalem in exactly the same way that the Palestinians forced Obama's hand on borders: not by settling the status of Jerusalem, but by obliging the U.S. government to express an opinion on the status of Israel -- that status being, as Congress has long insisted, the rightful and permanent capital of the Jewish state.

This blog originally appeared in the National Post.