Misguided Inaction Makes Peacemaking Even Harder

There is one question I’ve been asked consistently this weekend: Why – given my own firm commitment to a two-state solution and my publicly expressed concerns about the coming administration’s views on this – would I so strongly reject and abhor the U.S. abstention this past Friday on UN Security Council Resolution 2334?

My disagreement with our government’s action, or lack thereof, on Friday rests in matters of policy, politics, and practical outcomes.

As a matter of policy it is true that the Obama administration’s opposition to Israel’s expansion of settlements is broadly consistent with US policy across administrations of both parties going back four decades. But this administration has pressed that opposition with a particular fervor that has been ill-placed. In 2009 the then-young administration sought and received from the Netanyahu government a ten-month freeze on construction, which the Prime Minister described as “a painful step that will encourage the peace process.” Then the Palestinian leadership once again failed their people through objections and foot-dragging (even approaching the Arab League to encourage a new invasion of Israel in 2010) thereby closing yet another window for negotiations. But still, our administration remained focused on settlements as a singular obstacle to resolving the conflict.

Many in our community have been broadly supportive of the Obama administration’s agenda in other areas. Still — even as U.S.-Israel security cooperation and aide are, today, at an all time high — I was hopeful that the next administration, of either party, would be more evenhanded in articulating the obstacles to peace. I hoped that the U.S. would vigorously address not only the actions of Israel’s government, but the failures of the Palestinian leadership: The incitement to violence and rewarding of ‘martyrs’ families; The continuous rejection in international venues of any Jewish legitimacy in our attachment to our ancient homeland; The rampant corruption and postponement of elections as the Palestinian Authority has failed at even the effort to develop a civil society in service to their people in areas under their own control.

Even in the focus on settlements the Obama administration and its allies have painted a too-broad and unproductive brush. Yes, some settlements threaten the contiguity of an envisioned Palestinian state. And every family that would need to be evacuated for peace is another traumatic and expensive task – as seen in Sinai and Gaza when Israel evacuated Israelis from those post-’67 areas in pursuit of peace. But not all areas over the Green Line are the same and the continued characterization in American and international rhetoric of them as being equal is unproductive. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City, Gilo, Gush Etzion, Ariel and Amona are very different places, with differing meaning for the Jewish people and differing impact on a future peace. The failure to address this complexity with nuance and differentiation makes the entire anti-settlement policy too readily dismissible, a caricature of oversimplification in one of the most complicated regions on earth (And the same ought be said for Israel’s government and those of us who are resolute in our commitment to this nation – we do a disservice by characterizing and defending all settlement expansion as equally valid and valuable for Israel’s future).

Politically, Friday’s action was a failure of leadership by the Obama administration, and a betrayal of its own legacy. For nearly eight years, this administration has vetoed biased and one-sided resolutions, including some very similar to this one. The 180 degree turnaround in policy – itself a rejection of a broad bipartisan consensus on the role of U.S. leadership in UN bodies – in a lame duck period, without any public advance communication of the intent, strikes many of us as motivated by something far lesser than strategic imperatives.

To judge by Ambassador Power’s own remarks after the vote, the administration knows that this resolution is unfair – thus the abstention. It comes in a body that has excelled only in its demonization of Israel above all other matters, thus making this action the fruit of a poisoned tree. That this action was ‘led’ by such exemplars of international human rights as Egypt and Venezuela only underscores the farce therein.

I appreciate that President Obama is deeply committed to advancing peace. But the way in which he has chosen to do so does no favors to the Israelis or Palestinians. The United Nations, with its biases and obsessions regarding Israel, is not the venue for advancing a solution. The failure to recognize Israel’s security concerns and legitimate connection to the land means that the resolution should not have passed. The failure to hold the Palestinian leadership explicitly and directly accountable for its role supporting terrorism will only encourage them to continue incitement and unilateral tactics.

The practical outcome of this action is that we are farther from achieving peace than we were on Friday morning. Palestinian leaders are talking of this as a launching pad for further international action against Israel, wrongly fueled by their sense that rejection and foot-dragging might actually serve their cause. Hamas is openly celebrating. Fatah is using bloody and violent imagery to thank the fourteen nations that voted for this. And in Israel, an enraged right is talking openly of annexation and pressing to take further actions to strengthen and expand settlements. Friday’s action has done nothing to move the parties closer and everything to exacerbate the conditions the next administration will face come January.

So where do we go from here?

For one thing, while we should not under-react, we don’t want to over-react either. Thoughtful analysts say that the resolution, of itself, doesn’t really change much, not least because it has no binding legal status in international law.

Further, much as I am dismayed, and even as I take note that President-elect Trump made clear his opposition to this action, we only have one government at a time and a lot can still happen in the next three weeks. Further, there have been many political leaders on both sides of the U.S. partisan divide who spoke out last week before and after the vote – and we need all of these people to stay with us in a bipartisan coalition of support for Israel’s future. Jewish activists wrongly calling President Obama an anti-Semite, or rapid and robust countermeasures by Israel, could very well have unintended consequences at a precarious moment. What is needed now is a calm and thoughtful approach; There will be time enough for reflection and lessons learned.

The path to peace seems longer and more difficult than it did just a week ago. Instead of fear and frustration, accusations and anger, the onus is on us to confront tirelessly the obstacles to peace. That UNSC Resolution 2334 is now yet another one of the obstacles to peace is itself a tarnish on the Obama legacy.

We must insist that the international community normalize relations with Israel and treat it with balance and respect. We must ensure that the strength of the U.S.-Israel bond remains a bipartisan commitment in this country. And we must never stop working, nor lose sight, or hope, for the realization of a two-state solution. The alternative is unacceptable.

About the Author
Jeremy Burton is the Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston (JCRC), defining and advancing the values, interests and priorities of the organized Jewish community of Greater Boston in the public square. He has been published widely, including in the New York Jewish Week, the Jewish Forward, Zeek, Sh’ma, and the Washington Post: On Faith. The JTA included him in their 2010 “Twitter 100” list of the most influential Jewish voices on Twitter.
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