Benjamin Netanyahu is waging diplomatic war against the world, and notably against Israel’s only vital ally, the United States. We’ve never seen anything like it. It won’t win Israel any new friends.
Israel has a solitary vote in the United Nations General Assembly, and no vote at all at the United Nations Security Council. Israel was annihilated in the Security Council vote on Friday that demanded an end to all settlement activity and that designated all the land that Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war, which includes the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, as “occupied Palestinian territory.” The prime minister’s hope is that he can stave off further, and still more devastating, potential diplomatic defeat at the hands of the outgoing Obama administration via a mixture of pleas, threats and boycotts. On the horizon, he sees the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump. For Netanyahu, it cannot arrive soon enough.
Netanyahu’s repeated public assertion is that US President Barack Obama hatched the entire scheme to humiliate and abandon Israel at the Security Council. Why would a president who had just authorized the biggest military aid package to Israel in history do any such thing? Because, the prime minister has implied, Obama is fundamentally hostile to the Jewish state. Netanyahu hasn’t (yet) said this explicitly. He has, however, drawn a parallel between Friday’s decision by Obama to abstain, and thus facilitate the passage of UNSC Resolution 2334, and similar action by president Jimmy Carter at the Security Council in 1980, and noted that Carter was “deeply hostile to Israel.”
We will almost certainly find out one day, probably quite soon, whether, as Netanyahu has charged, Obama planned this “ambush” all along. Tellingly, in remarks to the Saban Forum earlier this month, Secretary of State John Kerry left open the door to a US abstention: “There are any number of countries talking about bringing resolutions to the United Nations,” Kerry noted. “If it’s biased and unfair, and a resolution calculated to delegitimize Israel, we’ll oppose it. Obviously, we will. We always have. But it’s getting more complicated now…”
The administration insists, by contrast, in the words of deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, “We did not draft this resolution; we did not introduce this resolution. We made this decision when it came up for a vote.”
There can be little doubt, however, that a number of very recent moves by Netanyahu made that abstention — that decision by Obama, for the first time in his presidency, to allow an anti-Israel resolution to pass at the Security Council — more likely.
Obama’s UN envoy, Samantha Power, cited in her post-vote address the prime minister’s recent delighted public claim that his government is “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history.” More specifically, she referenced the current legislative moves in Israel to retroactively legalize dozens of West Bank settlement outposts — legislation that Israel’s own attorney general warns is in breach of international law, and that Netanyahu had himself previously opposed.
On the Thursday before the fateful Friday, furthermore, Netanyahu took the extraordinary step of reaching out to not-yet-president Trump, pleading for his intervention to thwart the resolution. If Obama was still, by any chance, wavering, news that the president-elect he ridiculed and fought so bitterly on behalf of candidate Clinton was moving prematurely into his territory could only have helped make up his mind.
Some of Netanyahu’s outrage is well-founded. The entire international community rejects the settlement enterprise and always has — no surprises there. But much of that international community ought at least to demonstrate to the Jewish state some solidarity when it comes to Jerusalem. Netanyahu is understandably aggrieved that those 12 Security Council countries with whom Israel has diplomatic relations voted in favor of a resolution that determines all parts of Jerusalem captured by Israel in the 1967 war to be “occupied Palestinian territory,” and that the US allowed it through.
In the summer of 1980, when the “deeply hostile” Carter was in office and Israel had just annexed the Old City and East Jerusalem, the US abstained and thus enabled the passage of Resolution 478, which also related to “Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since June 1967, including Jerusalem.” But at least secretary of state Muskie stressed, in addressing the Security Council, that “the question of Jerusalem must be addressed in the context of negotiations for a comprehensive, just and lasting Middle East peace…” and that this resolution “fails to serve the goals of all faiths that look upon Jerusalem as holy.” He admonished the council to the effect that “we must share a common vision of that ancient city’s future — an undivided Jerusalem, with free access to the Holy Places for people of all faiths.”
There was, by contrast, no explicit reference to the need to determine Jerusalem’s future in negotiations, nor even to the city’s resonance for all faiths, in Samantha Power’s extensive presentation on Friday. In 2009, when Obama went to Cairo, he was rightly criticized for failing to stress, in his outreach speech to the Muslim world, the Jewish nation’s historical rootedness to Israel, the holy land, the ancient capital. Nothing seems to have been learned in the interim.
Outrage aside, however, the failed pre-vote diplomatic maneuvering by Netanyahu gives credence to those of his critics who argue that he has entered panic mode. For all the serenity and confidence he exudes in his public appearances, and for all that he is appeasing parts of his right-wing constituency — a critical imperative for retaining power — his tactics on Thursday were a mess, and he now seems to be deepening the damage.
While you might justify calling in the next president to thwart the current president if you’ve thought the high-risk gambit all the way through, you’re going to look worse than foolish if you fail to do your homework and wind up losing.
And that’s exactly what happened. Trump answered Netanyahu’s call, reached out to Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and the resolution was withdrawn. A Pyrrhic victory. Within hours, Senegal, Venezuela, Malaysia and New Zealand had stepped in to advance the very same resolution, and there was nothing that even the president-elect could do about that. So Trump wasted his pre-presidential capital, Sissi was humiliated, and Israel lost the vote.
The big loss yesterday for Israel in the United Nations will make it much harder to negotiate peace.Too bad, but we will get it done anyway!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2016
Netanyahu, and those advising him, might be sensibly dismayed by Trump’s dispassionate response to the setback. Initially, at least, there was no fervent defense of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, no pledge to reverse the pernicious decree, just a mild, rather ho-hum tweet on Saturday, that the “big loss yesterday for Israel in the United Nations will make it much harder to negotiate peace. Too bad, but we will get it done anyway!”
More urgently, though, the prime minister should be considering whether a similar inadequately calculated process is now playing out again. Those who seek to harm Israel will themselves be harmed, he has been warning. This is “the swan song of the old world, that is anti-Israel,” he declared on Saturday night. Soon Trump will be president, and the Israel-bashers will have hell to pay.
But there are two major flaws in that argument. Trump is not yet president. And not everybody who voted for that UNSC resolution loathes Israel.
Yet Netanyahu has taken them all on. With a lack of courtesy he would rightly castigate if the tables were turned, he summoned the ambassadors of the 12 yes-voting countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations for a dressing-down on Christmas Day. Imagine the outrage were a host country to call in the Israeli envoy on, say, Rosh Hashanah.
He ordered his ministers to minimize their dealings with these 12 countries. He canceled, or chose not to schedule, a meeting — depending on whose account you believe — with Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May at the World Economic Forum in Davos next month. Theresa May, who last week enthused about “remarkable” Israel at a Conservative Friends of Israel lunch, in a speech overflowing with admiration and empathy for the Jewish state. Likewise, he chose not to arrange a meeting with Xi Jinping, the president of China, a country with which Netanyahu has striven for years to bolster relations. He summoned home his ambassadors from Senegal and New Zealand. He cancelled a visit to Israel this week by the prime minister of Ukraine, who just so happens to be Jewish.
“They are spitting at us,” he was reported on Sunday to have been telling colleagues. “We will respond with power.” But we are one, small Israel, and it is our interest to widen support for our cause among the nations, to engage, to dialogue, to explain. We rightly condemn boycotts. Now Netanyahu is instituting them.
For all his fury at the perfidy of the international community, his sense of grievance and injustice, the question he must be asked is whether this is going to work. The Obama administration still has more than three weeks left in office. Kerry has said he will soon make a speech setting out his Middle East vision. On January 15, France is convening a summit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Netanyahu now reportedly fears that the scheming US administration, in coordination with the other Middle East Quartet members — Russia, the EU and the reviled UN — will utilize that gathering to draw up a second UN Security Council resolution to enshrine the parameters of a Palestinian state.
To again quote Kerry at the Saban Forum, “we have always stood against any imposition of a, quote, ‘final status solution.'” But in the current frenetic atmosphere, Netanyahu — rightly or wrongly — sees danger. Casting around for leverage, on Saturday night he warned that Israel’s friends in Congress would draw up legislation to punish states and organizations, such as the UN, that seek to harm Israel. “We won’t let anybody hurt the State of Israel,” he vowed.
But the inconvenient truth is that while 14 nations supported Resolution 2334, and the US chose not to oppose it, those 14 are not all enemies of Israel, far from it, and the United States certainly isn’t. The Czech Republic and Panama might, just might, have voted no, or abstained, but basically the entire world rejects the legality of the settlement enterprise. And much of that world, as Netanyahu has in the recent past enthusiastically highlighted, either broadly supports Israel or is moving in that direction.
For all the threats, the diplomatic dressing-downs, the ambassadorial recalls, the canceled visits, and the imminence of president Trump, there is no reason to believe that the Security Council would vote any differently from the way it voted on Friday if Netanyahu’s fears are realized and the Quartet formulates a resolution on Palestinian statehood. Except, of course, that the US, far from vetoing, would vote yes. Which would suggest that Netanyahu should be trying desperately to engage with the Obama administration, not to alienate it still further.
The root of the Netanyahu-Obama conflict
But that brings us to the root of Netanyahu’s unprecedented diplomatic war against the world: It is really the culmination of an eight-year fight with the Obama administration.
Obama never distinguished between more consensual and more isolated settlements. Maneuvering to salvage outposts, neither did Netanyahu
The president came into office regarding himself as a friend of Israel, but also — in contrast to the outgoing Bush administration — having no particular empathy for the notion of an Israel expanded beyond its pre-1967 lines. As he told this writer in an interview when he visited as a candidate in July 2008, “Israel may seek ’67-plus’ and justify it in terms of the buffer that they need for security purposes. They’ve got to consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.”
Obama always opposed the settlement enterprise, and generally did not distinguish between construction in Jerusalem and to the west of the security barrier, on the one hand, and building deeper inside the West Bank, in territory Israel would have to relinquish if it is to disentangle itself from the Palestinians, on the other.
By maneuvering in recent weeks to try to salvage the Amona outpost built on private Palestinian land, by coming around to support legislation that would retroactively legalize dozens of other such outposts, and by declaring his government “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history,” Netanyahu, for his part, underlined that he too draws no distinction between more consensual construction over the pre-1967 lines and building in the most contentious areas of Judea and Samaria. He tried to stave off the Amona moment of truth for just another few weeks, until a more amenable president was installed in the White House, but the High Court would no longer indulge him. For the sake of the isolated outposts, he risked the wrath of the international community.
On Saturday night, Netanyahu claimed that Resolution 2334 was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the act of diplomatic warfare that would prompt a “fundamental change” in the way the UN, and by extension, the international community treats Israel. Well, maybe. It must certainly be a comforting thought for him. Except that his intended agent of change, as he discovered to his horror on Friday, has not yet arrived.
It took just six days of war in 1967 to change the parameters of everything we now delight in, recoil at, grapple with and argue over. On the diplomatic battlefield, he and Obama still have three and a half weeks.