All right, all right, so I gave Obama too much credit.
I had really hoped that my blog post about former President Jimmy Carter’s recent New York Times op-ed would be the last time for a while that I would feel the need to address the issues involving Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the supposed peace process. Important as any news touching on Israel’s security must be to any committed Jew, it’s not the only issue worth talking about. But the events surrounding the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 have so dominated our attention and provoked so wide a variety of responses that I feel impelled to comment briefly on some aspects of that event.
As anyone who has not been comatose for the last few days knows by now, the Security Council last week adopted the resolution mentioned above by a vote of 14 to 0, with one abstention. UN resolutions condemning Israel have become so routine over the years that we hardly notice them anymore. What makes this one newsworthy is the abstention of the United States. Under Security Council procedures, each of the five permanent members of the Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US) can prevent the passage of any substantive resolution by simply voting no. That has been the usual practice of the US, during administrations of both parties, when faced, as we so often are, with one-sided anti-Israel resolutions.
On this occasion, however, the United States chose to abstain rather than veto the resolution. An abstention is the usual procedure used by permanent members of the Council who want to signal less than complete agreement with a proposed resolution but don’t want to block its adoption unilaterally. Abstentions by the US on anti-Israel resolutions, though not unprecedented, have been rare. Add to that the fact that the decision to abstain rather than veto was made by a lame duck president only a month before he leaves office, and you begin to understand why this vote has commanded so much attention.
Explaining the American abstention, Samantha Powers, the US ambassador to the United Nations, asserted that
because there are important issues that are not sufficiently addressed in this resolution; and because the United States does not agree with every word in this text, that the United
States did not vote in favor of the resolution
She nevertheless insisted that the US:
would not have let this resolution pass had it not also addressed counterproductive actions by the Palestinians such as terrorism and incitement to violence, which we’ve repeatedly condemned and repeatedly raised with the Palestinian leadership, and which, of course, must be stopped.
The text of the resolution is easy enough to find on line, but be warned: if you want to see any condemnation of Palestinian actions, you’ll have to read between the lines. Yes, the resolution does
Call upon both parties to act on the basis of international law, including international humanitarian law, and their previous agreements and obligations, to observe calm and restraint
Calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction
But you will search the text of the resolution in vain for any hint that that any Palestinian actions are an obstacle to peace or that the Palestinians have violated their obligations under prior agreements and resolutions. From the perspective of the resolution, the only thing holding up a final settlement is Israel’s refusal to stop building settlements. The heart of the resolution is its unconditional demand that Israel cease all settlement activity in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem.
It’s worth noting that the text of the resolution makes no distinction between the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On the contrary, it goes out of its way, in four separate places, to link the two. To the Security Council apparently, the Kotel (Western Wall) and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City — in which Jews have continuously resided for centuries (except the nineteen years it was occupied by Jordan from 1948 to 1967) — are no different from a hill-top settlement deep in the West Bank .
I don’t want to be too harsh with respect to Ms. Powers. She is too far down the food chain to have exercised independent judgment on an issue of this magnitude. Like all diplomats, she is sometimes required to recite with a straight face things she knows to be utter nonsense. I have no way to know what advice if any she gave President Obama with respect to this resolution, but I doubt that any advice from someone at her level would have been dispositive.
As I write it is still unclear whether the Obama administration’s decision to abstain was merely reactive, as the administration claims, or whether it was the product of behind-the-scenes machinations by US diplomats, as the Israeli government believes. Apparently, the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz (which has no sympathy for Netanyahu or the West Bank settlers) is reporting that leaked documents support the Israeli government’s accusation the Obama administration was behind the plot, though the newspaper has not yet been able to confirm the authenticity of the leaked document
The resolution in question was originally sponsored by Egypt, which agreed to withdraw it under pressure from the incoming Trump administration. At that point, four of the ten non-permanent members of the Council decided to sponsor it, resulting in the vote on which the US abstained. Three of the four sponsoring members were scheduled to leave the Council less than two weeks after the vote, so it’s conceivable that they would have been eager to have the Council address the issue before their terms expired . (Non-permanent members serve staggered two year terms, so half of them rotate off at the end of each calendar year.)
Because this vote took place during a Presidential transition — and particularly because the personalities of the relevant players make it harder than usual to know what to expect of the incoming administration — many commentators have focused attention on what this vote says about the relations between the president-elect and his predecessor. Those sympathetic to President Obama have accused Trump of violating the understanding that there is only one President at a time, so that Obama is the nation’s sole representative abroad until his successor is sworn in. Trump’s supporters, on the other hand, have accused Obama of defying the expectation that the outgoing President should avoid any action that would tie his successor’s hands on foreign policy except in case of emergency — which this clearly wasn’t.
Both accusations have some validity. Trump probably overstepped by communicating directly to Egypt his strong desire that it not seek a vote on its resolution during this transition. Obama on the other hand, by abstaining on a resolution the US had always vetoed in the past, apparently sought to take political revenge against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a time that neither Obama nor his party would risk electoral consequences.
It’s hard to imagine that Obama really believes that his failure to veto this resolution can in any way advance the cause of peace. If anything, it will have the opposite effect — encouraging the Palestinians’ continued resistance to compromise while increasing Netanyahu’s popularity at home. But if Obama didn’t believe that the Security Council’s vote could help the cause of peace, then why do it? I’d like to believe that there is some rationale behind the abstention other than personal animus toward Netanyahu — but if so, I haven’t yet figured it out. A friend pointed out to me that in this case Obama seemed to be behaving the way Trump usually does, personalizing diplomatic differences and obsessing about consequences for crossing him. I’d like to argue, but the analogy seems apt.
Was I wrong in predicting, in my post about Carter’s Times op-ed, that Obama would not follow Carter’s unsolicited advice? Not entirely — what Carter wanted was actual American recognition of the State of Palestine, an action that would be far more destructive than merely failing to veto a resolution condemning Israel. I do have to admit, however, that I may have given Obama too much credit in saying that it would be “out of character” for him to act against Netanyahu “out of spite.”
In the meantime, this kerfuffle has given us an opportunity to get an advance peak at how Trump’s new administration might deal with a diplomatic crisis. No, it doesn’t alleviate all my fears of the dangers that Commander in Chief Trump represents. But it is a timely reminder that even bad leaders sometimes get things right. (See Nixon, Yom Kippur War).
Hang on, the fun’s just starting.