Without US cover at UN, Israel could face diplomatic avalanche

Without US cover at UN, Israel could face diplomatic avalanche

Already violating countless resolutions, Jerusalem has little to fear immediately from a Security Council vote on Palestine. But there would be painful repercussions in the long run

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The UN Security Council voting on a resolution on Palestinian statehood on December 30, 2014. The resolution was voted down. (UN/Evan Schneider)
The UN Security Council voting on a resolution on Palestinian statehood on December 30, 2014. The resolution was voted down. (UN/Evan Schneider)

It would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago for the White House to consider furling up the diplomatic umbrella it had used for decades to shield Israel at the UN.

But even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attempted to do damage control for a series of recent controversial pronouncements, reiterating his support for a two-state solution and apologizing for his election day anti-Arab rhetoric, Washington seemingly remains determined to “reassess” its policy vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians.

Very little, if anything, would change on the ground, but a Security Council resolution calling for a Palestinian state is certain to have severe diplomatic repercussions for Israel, analysts say.

While the administration insists it has made no changes to US policy yet, officials say that President Barack Obama strongly is considering backing Palestinian moves at the United Nations Security Council.

This could mean that Washington will hold back from vetoing a French or Jordanian resolution calling for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines with land swaps.

The US could even propose its own resolution seeking to enshrine the parameters of a future peace deal based on a two-state solution.

No Palestinian flagpoles are going to pop up across the West Bank in the near term, nor will Jerusalem have to fear an immediate barrage of harsh sanctions or other punitive measures as a direct result of a resolution in Turtle Bay.

But a Security Council resolution would signal to the international community that the Americans are no longer interested in providing cover for Israel’s desire to maintain the status quo, which is liable to set in motion a diplomatic avalanche that will ultimately weaken Israel’s position in negotiations with the Palestinians.

“The symbolism could potentially have some longer-term implications,” said international studies professor Stephen Zunes, who coordinates the University of San Francisco’s Middle Eastern Studies program.

Washington backing Palestine-related moves at the UN would highlight Israel’s isolation even more, which might motivate Israelis to vote for a less hawkish government in the future, surmised Zunes, a known critic of American diplomatic support for Israel.

While no sanctions come automatically with the violation of a Security Council resolution, the administration’s putative move at the UN might spur the European Union to start implementing punitive measures, such as labeling West Bank products, which would negatively impact Israel’s economy, he said.

Benjamin Netanyahu gives the thumbs-up to supporters at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, early on March 18, 2015, hours after the TV exit polls were announced for the previous day's elections were published. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
PM Netanyahu at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, early on March 18, 2015, hours after the TV exit polls were announced for the previous day’s elections were published. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Jerusalem adamantly opposes any Security Council resolution on the Palestinian issue, though it appears few efforts are being made to dissuade the Americans from their ostensible plan to push for one.

Instead, the Netanyahu administration has focused all its efforts at preventing a bad nuclear deal with Iran, a senior Israeli official said Tuesday. Officials in Jerusalem have been arguing that the US administration’s threats on the Palestinian front were intended to divert attention from the Iran deal it is currently negotiating.

So far the Americans have only said they would reassess their policy but have not taken any decision, the official argued.

“US policy has always been that peace will be achieved by direct negotiations between the parties. That is the correct policy — there’s no other way to achieve peace,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Israel holds the record in ignoring Security Council resolutions

Things are bad, but they could be even worse. At the end of the day, said Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, any Security Council resolution on Palestine will not be enforceable and therefore Israel doesn’t have to worry about immediate concrete reprisals.

It would be different if said resolution were passed under Chapter VII of the UN charter, which deals with threats to world peace or “acts of aggression.” But in its entire history, the Security Council has never passed a resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under Chapter VII and it is virtually guaranteed that the currently discussed draft will be no exception, several international law experts said.

Sanctions imposed on states based on resolutions filed under Chapter VII are binding on all UN member states — for example the sanctions leveled on Iran over its rogue nuclear program. But since this won’t be the case with the US-backed Palestine resolution, Jerusalem won’t have to confront a concerted international sanctions regime.

However, individual states or bodies such as the EU could independently decided to sanction or boycott Israel.

Any Security Council resolution on the two-state solution would instead be filed under Chapter VI, which exhorts states in conflict with each other to engage in negotiations. Legal scholars argue whether such resolutions are legally binding, but agree that there is no way to enforce them.

The much-dreaded resolution on the two-state solution is therefore not much more than a “political statement,” said Sabel, who teaches international law at the Hebrew University. Rather than a Palestinian doomsday weapon heralding Israel’s imminent withdrawal from the West Bank, it should be seen as a “non-binding recommendation” on the two parties to negotiate based on the framework provided by the resolution.

Israel is already in violation of nearly 100 Security Council resolutions, most of them calling for a withdrawal from occupied territory, so another resolution could easily be added to the list and filed away by Jerusalem.

While there are many other countries that ignore Security Council resolutions (most of them US allies), Israel holds the record, a 2002 study found.

Most well-known among them is Resolution 242 of November 1967, which says that Middle East peace should include the “[w]ithdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.”

Other resolutions condemn Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, though so far there are none that would specify the terms of Israel’s withdrawal more concretely.

But drafts being circulated, which the US may let pass, would do exactly that — by explicitly making the 1967 lines the basis for the future border between Israel and Palestine. And that could put a serious dent in Israel’s negotiating position, said Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN and close Netanyahu adviser.

“A UN Security Council resolution that explicitly delineated Israel’s future borders would first and foremost undermine Israel’s bilateral agreement with the Palestinians, that made the future of borders an issue for negotiations and not something that would be imposed from the outside,” Gold said.

Dore Gold (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Dore Gold (Photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

A Security Council resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, even with minor land swaps, would contradict the spirit of Resolution 242, Gold argued.

“It should be stressed that in a 1975 memorandum between the US and Israel, Washington gave assurances that it would vote against any initiative in the Security Council that would alter adversely or change Resolution 242 and 338 [after the Yom Kippur War] ‘in ways that are incompatible with their original purpose.’”

A US-backed resolution enshrining the Green Line as the base line for a future peace agreement will not change anything on the ground but it will upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s negotiation position, said Ilai Saltzman, an Israeli international relations professor currently teaching at Claremont McKenna College in California. “This is a slippery slope. If the Americans will not veto any resolution it opens up a window for additional shifts in US foreign policy.”

‘It will allow the Palestinians to assume the role of Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. We’ll have a complete reversal of the roles of David and Goliath’

True, Jerusalem will maintain the ability to prevent the de facto establishment of a Palestinian state. But one Security Council resolution on the matter will lead to another, and Israel’s violation of all of them will eventually put Israel on a collision course with the entire international community, Saltzman added.

“There will be an accumulative effect of these resolutions and eventually, even if Netanyahu sustains his premiership for the full four years, the pressure will only increase over time,” he said.

Israelis are proud that they accepted the UN partition plan of 1947 while the Arabs rejected it, Saltzman said. Israel ignoring a Security Council resolution calling for a two-state solution could undermine that position, he posited.

“It will allow the Palestinians to assume the role of Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. We will have a complete reversal of the roles of David and Goliath.”

More dangerously, Saltzman added, an American willingness to abandon Israel at the UN has the potential to unleash sanctions and penalties from the European Union, which has long considered imposing certain restrictions, especially on goods from the West Bank.

“The international community is very much fed up with the Israeli occupation,” he said, and if it the US translated that frustration into policy, “this could seriously undercut European-Israeli relations. Israel will be in a very precarious situation.”

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