Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, by essentially daring the United States to veto his people's bid for statehood, has put the Obama administration and ally Israel in a corner and has left several lawmakers wondering what U.S. policy on the Middle East is trying to achieve.
Abbas' declaration on Friday that he would pursue statehood at a U.N. Security Council meeting next week was expected -- despite Arab League efforts to encourage the Palestinians to seek observer status in the General Assembly. The move will set up a potential showdown that has been brewing for months and could leave the U.S. with diminished credibility among the Arab world.
It also has the head of the House Intelligence Committee wondering what the U.S. was trying to achieve by not averting the situation in the first place.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said the administration's policy is confused at best since it supports an "Arab Spring," but not a Palestinian awakening while at the same time making Israel even more insecure in a hostile neighborhood that includes former Israeli ally Turkey.
"The Israelis don't know if they think we're our friends right now, but they're not sure," he said "Without any U.S. strength in that whole region, we are as close to a disaster as we can possibly get."
On Wednesday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said if the U.S. wants to stop the Palestinian statehood bid in its tracks, it should dangle the threat of no more aid.
"Despite decades of assistance totaling billions of dollars, if a Palestinian state were declared today, it would be neither democratic, nor peaceful, nor willing to negotiate with Israel. By providing the Palestinians with $2.5 billion over the last five years, the U.S. has only rewarded and reinforced their bad behavior," she said.
Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., the ranking member on the same committee, suggested that even if the U.S. vetoes a Palestinian bid at the Security Council, approval by the General Assembly of limited recognition, which would require a two-thirds vote, would be cataclysmic to the Israelis.
"If the General Assembly enhances the Palestinians' current status as a non-state observer to that of a state, the Palestinians would have standing to bring cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, and that is exactly what President Abbas has indicated he will do," Berman said. "Of course, that would merely waste more time and further poison relations with Israel, making statehood and peace further away than ever."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other members of the Obama administration say they support statehood for the Palestinians but through negotiations with Israel, not through a statehood bid.
"The Palestinians will not and cannot achieve statehood through a declaration at the United Nations," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "It is a distraction, and in fact, it's counterproductive. That remains our position."
National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes on Friday added that the only way for the Palestinians to achieve statehood is through agreements with Israel on issues like recognition, agreed-upon borders and security cooperation.
"We don’t' believe that unilateral actions to the United Nations will lead to a Palestinian state, Rhodes said.
He said President Obama will make clear during his speech at the U.N. next week -- where he also plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- that peace can only be achieved through negotiations.
But blurring the message, Rhodes then added that while every situation is different, what is constant is U.S. support for self-determination.
Offering a sample of what a Palestinian state would be like, Palestinian Ambassador to the U.S. Maen Rashid Areikat told reporters earlier this week that it would be free of minorities, implying that Jews would not be permitted within the borders of a new Palestine.
"After the experience of the last 44 years of military occupation and all the conflict and friction, I think it would be in the best interest of the two people to be separated," he was quoted saying by the Christian Science Monitor.