UN punctures Netanyahu’s theory that settlements are a non-issue
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Analysis

UN punctures Netanyahu’s theory that settlements are a non-issue

As PM continues to hail Israel’s improving foreign relations, Friday’s crushing defeat at the Security Council reveals a less-rosy picture

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 71st UN general assembly debate at the UN headquarters in New York City, on September 22, 2016 (Amir Levy/FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 71st UN general assembly debate at the UN headquarters in New York City, on September 22, 2016 (Amir Levy/FLASH90)

Three months ago, during his annual address to the United Nations in New York, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said something he predicted would “shock” his listeners: “Israel,” he declared, “has a bright future at the UN.”

He acknowledged that there “might be a storm before the calm,” noting rumors that some countries planned on “ganging up on Israel at the UN later this year.” Asserting that he would “not accept any attempt by the UN to dictate terms to Israel,” he reiterated his absolute conviction that “the revolution in Israel’s standing among the nations” will penetrate even the UN. “I have so much confidence, in fact, that I predict that a decade from now an Israeli prime minister will stand right here where I am standing and actually applaud the UN.”

In recent weeks, he has updated his assessment, saying that change at the UN will come “even sooner.” The nations of the world are eager for Israeli high-tech and anti-terror expertise, he now argues, and no longer believe that the settlements are the source of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — or that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in turn, is the source of Middle East instability.

On Saturday night — in his first public appearance after the 15-member UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israeli settlements, with 14 yes votes and an American abstention — Netanyahu did not back down from his ambitious goal. “The UN resolution adopted yesterday is merely part of the swan song of the old world that is biased against Israel. But, my friends, we are entering a new era,” he proclaimed.

Rather than admit that Friday’s crushing diplomatic defeat showed that the desired revolution in Israel’s foreign relations might, to put it mildly, be advancing slower than projected, he doubled down on the timetable he had set: “Contrary to what you might expect, it is very likely that last night’s scandalous resolution will accelerate this process. It is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Netanyahu lashed out at the outgoing US administration for allowing the resolution to pass. He decided to punish two of the four states that co-sponsored the resolution (the other two, Malaysia and Venezuela, don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel). He canceled the upcoming visit to Israel of Senegal’s foreign minister and suspended all aid programs to the Muslim-majority state in West Africa (a region he last week declared he would visit soon to foster ties). Additionally, the prime minister, who is also foreign minister, ordered the cancellation of visits to Israel of the non-resident ambassadors of Senegal and New Zealand.

For good measure, he canceled this week’s visit to Israel of Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, and vowed to cut funding for several UN agencies.

These moves conveniently ignored a simple fact: It wasn’t “the UN”; nor was it Ban Ki-moon, or the Obama administration, that passed Friday’s resolution, but a near-unanimous majority of the members of its most important decision-making body. Yes, the Obama administration allowed it to pass by abstaining, but the envoys of all 14 other countries on the council, among them close allies, raised their hands in favor of the resolution.

It wasn’t only New Zealand, Senegal and Ukraine, but also Russia, China, France and Great Britain; not only hostile nations such as Malaysia and Venezuela, but also Israel’s ostensible friends Egypt, Angola, Spain, Japan and Uruguay. (Only two and a half weeks ago, Netanyahu hosted Uruguayan Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa in Jerusalem and thanked him for his country’s “friendship and support,” noting “its important role at the UN Security Council.”)

In this photo provided by the United Nations, members of the United Nations Security council vote at the United Nations headquarters on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016, in favor of condemning Israel for its practice of establishing settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In a striking rupture with past practice, the US allowed the vote, not exercising its veto. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)
In this photo provided by the United Nations, members of the United Nations Security council vote at the United Nations headquarters on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016, in favor of condemning Israel for its practice of establishing settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. In a striking rupture with past practice, the US allowed the vote, not exercising its veto. (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)

It is hard to deny that Netanyahu has proven a savvy analyst of world affairs. He predicted that the Arab Spring might not turn out as happily as many had hoped, and he was also among the first to recognize the nuclear threat emanating from an increasingly assertive Iran striving for regional hegemony.

In less than 10 years, we will know whether his optimistic vision of Israel’s place in the world was as precise as his more pessimistic predictions over the Middle East in general. But the fact that 14 out of 15 states, representing all continents, voted in favor of the resolution, and not a single one voted against it, makes it difficult to believe his premise, repeated ad nauseum in speeches and briefings, that the world no longer cares about what Israel does in the West Bank.

What transpired Friday at the Security Council disproves Netanyahu’s theory that Israel’s foreign relations will flourish even while it’s business as usual in the territories. As long as Jerusalem does not make a genuine, visible effort to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vote made plain, the world is unlikely to forget about the settlements.

Could the US abstention have been avoided?

Netanyahu had anxiously anticipated the possibility that Washington could back an anti-Israel resolution at the Security Council in the last days of Obama’s presidency. “With every passing day that possibility becomes less likely, but until then it’s still there,” he said recently.

Until a few weeks ago, everything seemed to be going rather smoothly. Netanyahu and Obama seemed to have moved on from the bitter feud over the Iranian nuclear deal and signed an agreement over the highest-ever US military aid package. Netanyahu made a painstaking effort to remain neutral in the US elections, lest he be seen as favoring the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who vowed to undo many of Obama’s landmark achievements.

Even in the days that immediately followed the November 8 election, Netanyahu refrained from the kind of jubilation expressed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who hailed Trump’s victory as the end of the two-state solution. The outgoing president, it was widely assumed, would not in his final days in office destroy his record as the only US president to block every single anti-Israel initiative at the Security Council since 1967.

Then along came the crisis surrounding Amona, a settlement outpost built on private Palestinian land slated for demolition.

Netanyahu made great strides to appease the settlers by advancing legislation that would legalize many other unrecognized settlements, including remote illegal outposts. In the process, he reaffirmed his “love” for the settlement movement. “There has not been a government that showed more concern for settlement in the Land of Israel, and no government will show more concern,” he said last Sunday.

If Obama indeed “colluded” with the Palestinians to propose the resolution, as officials in Jerusalem allege, Netanyahu’s declaration of love for the settlements certainly did nothing to weaken the outgoing president’s resolve. Proclaiming one’s concerns for outlying settlements is “irreconcilable” with Netanyahu’s professed acceptance of the two-state solution, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, told the Security Council on Friday in explaining her abstention.

Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the United Nations Security Council, after the council voted on condemning Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)
Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the United Nations Security Council, after the council voted on condemning Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 (Manuel Elias/The United Nations via AP)

“One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution that would end the conflict,” she said. “One has to make a choice between settlements and separation.”

Let’s take a step back. On Thursday afternoon, a few hours after Egypt surprisingly called for a vote on a Palestinian draft that condemned the settlements and “acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement and destruction,” Netanyahu issued a statement calling on the US to veto the text. At the same time, officials in Jerusalem (who say they had learned that the outgoing administration would not veto the resolution) contacted Trump’s transition team and asked for help in getting Egypt to withdraw the draft.

The president-elect delivered, and Cairo asked to postpone the vote indefinitely. As other countries were likely to step in, Jerusalem continued to urge Obama to adhere to Washington’s longstanding policy of shielding Israel at the UN.

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks on as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi speaks during a meeting at the Plaza Hotel on September 19, 2016 in New York. (AFP/Dominick Reuter)
Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump looks on as Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi speaks during a meeting at the Plaza Hotel on September 19, 2016 in New York. (AFP/Dominick Reuter)

On Friday afternoon, an Israeli official for the first time accused the US administration of having “cooked up with the Palestinians an extreme anti-Israeli resolution behind Israel’s back.” In unprecedentedly harsh language, the official said the resolution would provide a “tailwind for terror and boycotts and effectively make the Western Wall occupied Palestinian territory.”

A few hours later, the resolution was voted on in New York, and Netanyahu completely took the gloves off, lashing out at Obama for “colluding” with the Palestinians on the “shameful” and “absurd” text.

On Saturday, Israeli officials doubled down on their claim that Obama was a driving force behind the resolution. “We know this from Arab and international sources,” a senior official said, refusing to elaborate. Other officials in Jerusalem postulated that it was Israel’s attempt to get Trump to thwart a possible US abstention that sealed Obama’s determination to withhold the veto.

Meanwhile, well-placed sources in Washington said that Obama, who is currently on vacation in Hawaii, made his final decision on Friday morning Hawaii time, when Senegal, New Zealand, Venezuela and Malaysia stepped in for Egypt and called for a vote on the Palestinian draft.

It remains unclear what exactly transpired in Washington, New York, Hawaii and Jerusalem, and whether the US abstention could have been averted had Netanyahu acted differently in the last few days. But based on what is currently known, Netanyahu’s decision to publicly attack Obama for “colluding” against Israel even before the resolution was brought to a vote seems unwise, to say the least. Why provoke a man who still has a month in office, especially when a Security Council resolution is up for a vote in a matter of hours?

What next?

In a statement issued late Friday night, the prime minister said he was looking forward to working with Trump “and with all our friends in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to negate the harmful effects of this absurd resolution.”

Indeed, while Resolution 2334 does not call for immediate concrete steps against Israel, it contains several troubling passages, from an Israeli perspective. For instance, it urges all nations to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” That could be read as an encouragement to label or boycott Israeli products made in the settlements.

The text also “calls for affirmative steps to be taken immediately to reverse the negative trends on the ground,” which some might understand as inviting sanctions against Israel.

An aerial view of the Dome of the Rock, left, in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's old city, and the Western Wall, center, the holiest site for Jews, October 02, 2007. (AFP/JACK GUEZ)
The Dome of the Rock, left, in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s old city, October 02, 2007. (AFP/JACK GUEZ)

Critics in Israel, including the prime minister on Saturday night, have lambasted the resolution as “absurd” since it treats Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Western Wall, as “occupied Palestinian territory.” To most Jewish ears that sounds ludicrous, of course, but it is nothing new. No one in the international community — not even the US — ever recognized Israeli sovereignty over any inch of the territory it captured in 1967.

Security Council Resolution 465, passed unanimously in 1980, determined that Israeli actions in “Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity… constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention… and also constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

The fact that the US on Friday did not veto a Security Council resolution that once again condemned Israel for building in “Palestinian territory” captured in 1967 does not mean that Washington has now recognized East Jerusalem and the entire West Bank as part of a sovereign State of Palestine. The position held by most of the international community is that borders must be determined by the two sides in a final-status agreement. This resolution doesn’t change that. All it does is call on Israel to cease trying to establish facts on the ground before such an accord is reached.

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