US veto at Security Council may no longer be a given

With ties growing colder, some in Jerusalem fear Washington’s protection at the UN cannot be taken for granted, and that the midterms may further complicate the picture

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

US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2012 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)
US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2012 (Avi Ohayon/Government Press Office/Flash90)

After Jeffrey Goldberg’s infamous “chickenshit” article, it is hard to deny that ties between the Israeli government and the current US administration have reached a nadir. Even Yaacov Amidror, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, admitted this week that “relations between Israel and the US have deteriorated to an all-time low.”

Worse than the bad language and backroom bickering, though, is the fear that the frosty relationship may mean Israel can no longer rely on Washington’s veto in the Security Council, which has been a rock-solid given in defense of Israel for decades.

It’s no secret that Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have little love lost for each other, between disputes over an Iranian nuclear deal and building in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Less discussed publicly is the fear that the administration will abandon Israel on the Palestinian question at the UN. The Palestinians are planning to go the United Nations Security Council with a draft resolution calling for an Israel withdrawal by November 2016 from all areas captured in 1967. They originally wanted to submit it by October but will probably wait for January, when the Security Council membership will be more favorable to their cause.

A few years ago, there would have been no question that the US would have vetoed any such resolution. In February 2011, Washington vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements (despite the US’s longstanding opposition to settlement-building), thwarting the council’s other 14 members, who all voted in favor. A year later, the administration successfully blocked the Palestinians’ attempt to become full UN members.

But since then, ties between the Jerusalem and Washington have gone drastically downhill, and the American veto can apparently no longer be taken for granted.

“Without US support in the international arena, and especially in the UN Security Council, Israel would be in a very difficult position today, to the point of diplomatic and economic isolation,” Amidror wrote Monday in a paper for the BESA Center for Strategic Studies.

Asked by The Times of Israel whether he fears Washington could possibly refrain from using its veto in January, he indicated that while unlikely, such a scenario is not entirely unthinkable. “It doesn’t seem logical that they wouldn’t use their veto. But I don’t know.”

Netanyahu is indeed worried that the US will “abandon” Israel at the UN, Israeli journalist Ariel Kahane reported Sunday on the NRG website [Hebrew link], quoting senior ministers. “The prime minister told colleagues in recent days … that his office’s understanding of the issue and the government’s take on it is that the Americans will not cast a veto against a resolution that reaches the Security Council,” Kahane later elaborated in a newspaper interview.

Officially, Jerusalem has faith in the Americans. “The US has had a consistent position of refusing to support one-sided UN resolutions against Israel, and I have no reason to believe that America’s position is about to change,” a senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel this week.

Even Danny Danon, a hawkish Likud lawmaker who doesn’t mince words in his criticism of the White House, said Israel could depend on the support of its biggest ally, even while anonymous senior US administration officials hurl obscenities at the prime minister.

“Our shared values will ensure that the American people and the American leaders will stand with Israel,” he said. Preventing the Palestinians from getting their way at the UN is “in the interest of the American people,” he told The Times of Israel. “Our fight against Islam extremism and terrorism is their fight.”

Indeed, the recognition of a Palestinian state in the absence of a negotiated agreement with Israel is against declared US policy, noted Robbie Sabel, a former legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and professor of international law at Hebrew University. Furthermore, current US law prohibits the administration from granting rights at the UN to bodies that aren’t recognized as a state, he noted. To circumvent this, “the federal government could declare that Palestine is already a state. But it is highly unlikely that it would do that.”

Israel can thus be confident that the administration will not allow the Security Council to pass a resolution setting a timetable for an Israel withdrawal, or even one that would merely call for Palestine to be admitted to the UN as a full member state (without deadline for an Israeli withdrawal), he asserted.

“At the same time the US will use [the question of] their veto as leverage to pressure Israel to restart another round of peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” Sabel said.

There is also speculation in Jerusalem that the administration, unwilling to use its veto (which would be needed if nine Security Council members vote in favor), will propose to the Palestinians an alternative version of the draft resolution — one that would condemn Israeli settlement activity as illegal under international law. In the past, the US blocked such resolutions, but in the current climate it might well support one. Rumor has it that Washington and Ramallah are already in close contact regarding the wording of such a draft resolution.

‘I wish I could say the veto is in our pocket, but I don’t think that’s the case’

Israeli and American officials refused to comment on these rumors. Asked about the veto, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki last week did not want to predict how the US will act when the Palestinians turn to the UN, merely saying that the administration doesn’t “have information yet on what the plan is.”

Not everyone is sure that the US would put the kibosh on the Palestinians’ maneuver at the UN. “I wish I could say the veto is in our pocket, but I don’t think that’s the case,” said Oded Eran, a retired former Israeli top diplomat. “A lot will depend on the language of the draft resolution and other issues.”

If the Palestinian draft resolution calls for the creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital, Israel can be sure of an American veto, assessed Eran, a former deputy director general at the Foreign Ministry and deputy chief of the Israeli embassy in Washington. “The Americans cannot accept, nor can anyone else, that the Security Council decides on borders and what the capital of a new member state would be, especially not in this region.”

But if the resolution calls for the creation of a Palestinian state, or even an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, without getting into the specifics, it is indeed plausible that the current administration would support it, he said.

True, the US thwarted the Palestinians’ previous attempts at enhanced UN status, but “that was during a time when there was a peace process. Today, there is nothing,” said Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. The sorry state of personal relations between the president and the prime minister — and between individual top ministers in the two countries — doesn’t help either, he added.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry, left, to his office at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, May 6, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Susan Walsh)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, welcomes Secretary of State John Kerry, left, to his office at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday, May 6, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Susan Walsh)

The outcome of Tuesday’s midterm elections could be crucial. Should Democrats pull off a surprise win, they could be emboldened to shun Israel at Turtle Bay. But if the Democrats do poorly, as they are expected to, Secretary of State John Kerry or Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel might be replaced, which could change Washington’s Middle East policy in Israel’s favor, according to Shmuel Sandler, an expert on American foreign policy and US-Israel relations at Bar-Ilan University.

Plus, if the Democrats are defeated, they will immediately start to plan for the 2016 presidential elections and therefore refrain from anything that would anger the pro-Israel community, he predicted.

“That’s why we’re not going to see another slap in the face of Israel,” he argued. After the “chickenshit” insults and the expected Iran deal, the Americans will not also abandon Israel at the UN, Sandler surmised. “They can’t slap Israel three times.”

On the other hand, Washington will keep all options on the table regarding a veto at the Security Council in order to threaten Jerusalem as long as possible, he suggested, and he admitted that a lame duck president could indeed be dangerous to Israel.

After six years during which Obama had to restrain himself despite all his grievances about what he considers Israeli recalcitrance, after the midterm elections there is very little that could hold him back. And yet, Sandler said, “Obama doesn’t want to go down in history as person who destroyed relations between the US and Israel.”

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