The Obama administration has had eight years to convey its concerns about Israel’s settlement expansion, eight years to use its phenomenal leverage with its key Middle East ally to pressure Jerusalem to change course.
If — and as of this writing, we are still in “if” territory — the administration was, perhaps still is, ready to forgo its UN veto and let a Palestinian-designed resolution gain passage in the UN Security Council, condemning all settlements and potentially inviting new international diplomatic and financial pressure against Israel, it will instead have chosen a course of action that could sabotage its admirable two-term history of defending Israel against those international players that wish it ill. It will have essentially sided against Israel with those negative forces.
It will have reversed and made a mockery of its own previous pledges and positions — notably when it vetoed a similar resolution five years ago with the explanation that the Security Council was not the right venue for tackling issues that need to be resolved by the parties themselves. (Susan Rice, the US envoy to the UN at the time, noted that the veto “should not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity, but added: “Unfortunately, this draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides and could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations.”)
And it will have acted without nuance on the settlement issue, undermining its own goals when it comes to this vexed and complex issue, as it unfortunately often has.
For eight years, the Obama administration frequently condemned all building beyond the pre-1967 lines as a crime of equal gravity, rarely choosing to distinguish between new homes built deep in West Bank territory, where the Palestinians seek statehood, and those in Jerusalem or close to the pre-1967 lines, where even the Palestinians realize they will not be gaining control. Those blanket condemnations alienated much of mainstream Israel — which opposes settling in areas that complicate any eventual separation from the Palestinians, but largely supports building inside Jerusalem and the so-called settlement blocs — and thus worked against the Obama administration’s own goal of bolstering Israeli backing for an eventual accommodation.
In its final months and weeks, the administration had been dropping hints that it might not block anti-settlement moves at the UN, notably when Secretary of State John Kerry, publicly castigating the settlement enterprise with unprecedented vigor during an appearance at the Saban Forum earlier this month, promised only to veto what he termed “a biased, unfair resolution calculated to delegitimize Israel.”
Did the administration persuade itself that the Egyptian text submitted late Wednesday constituted an unbiased and fair resolution that it could reasonably allow to win passage? If so, and again we remain in the corridors of uncertainty for now, then Israel plainly disagrees. The Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Danny Danon, termed the text “disgraceful.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleaded publicly with the US to veto it.
Dore Gold, until recently the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, told The Times of Israel on Friday that language in the resolution calling on “all states … to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” potentially gives backing to the relentless effort worldwide to impose boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) pressure on Israel. Moreover, Gold noted, by acquiescing to a resolution that brands settlements as “having no legal validity,” the US could be regarded as having changed its position, having hitherto formally chosen to consider settlements “illegitimate” rather than illegal — a subtle difference but an important one as other countries and organizations look to the US when considering sanction and boycott action.
Numerous unnamed Israeli officials have been alleging, in the past day, that Obama was indeed about to let the resolution pass, and that Kerry had been readying to deliver an address on Thursday afternoon explaining the dramatic shift in US policy, until Egypt, contacted by incoming president Trump, opted to withdraw the resolution. Israel “became aware that the admin would not veto the anti-Israel resolution,” one Israeli official stated, in writing, to reporters here on Thursday evening. This was nothing less than a planned diplomatic “hit” by Obama against Netanyahu and the settlements, and it would have worked had Trump not dashed to the rescue, Israel’s Channel 2 news quoted a senior Jerusalem official saying on Thursday night. By contrast, another source asserted that the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, had not been given instructions on how to vote when the Egyptians withdrew the resolution.
We may get the full story soon enough. For now, if there was a planned “hit,” it has been bungled. For now, it would appear that Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, quite extraordinarily, chose the promise of warmed ties with the incoming US administration over Egypt’s traditional dutiful obligation to the Palestinian cause. For now, it would appear that Netanyahu, so plainly disliked by the outgoing president, has been rescued by his new best friend, the incoming president. And for now, the Obama administration finds itself laid open to the allegation that it opted for a heavy-handed tactic, that backfired, in support of a stance that it had two full terms to advance via friendlier, more subtle and more effective means.
But the saga is not over yet. If Egypt chooses not to change course a third time by re-introducing its resolution, there seems to be no shortage of other Security Council members ready to step into the breach and submit a similar text.
We may yet see definitively whether, after eight years when it failed to use its leverage to push a nuanced approach on the settlement issue, the Obama administration will leave the scene with an act that empowers Israel’s non-nuanced critics, undercuts its own long-held position regarding the role of the UN in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amend its legacy on Israel, and seeks to constrain the policies of a new president who will be taking office in less than a month.
We may yet see whether President Barack Obama — reportedly the only president in 50 years to have blocked all anti-Israel resolutions at the Security Council — is going to choose to redefine his relationship with Israel via an abstention there in these, his final days.
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