U.S. President Barack Obama has been accused of waiting until after the 2016 election to show his true colors and act on his hatred for Israel. But the American abstention on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334, along with Secretary of State John Kerry’s subsequent speech, was not a rebuke against Israel; it was a rebuke of Netanyahu and the accelerating expansion of settlements across the West Bank. And on substance, it’s a rebuke with which plenty of Israelis agree.
The content and implications of this UNSC Resolution, the first of its kind on which the Obama administration has abstained, matter far less than Netanyahu’s release of festering frustration, resentment and thinly veiled contempt toward a supportive U.S. President.
Other than emphasizing that opposition to settlements is not anti-Israel, there is nothing new in this UNSC resolution. It restates four decades of U.S. policy, under which settlements over the 1949 Green Line – including within ever-expanding East Jerusalem – have been considered “obstacles to peace” and contrary to international law. As well, 2334 includes no teeth or enforcement.
Compared with his recent White House predecessors, who abstained – or even voted yes – on multiple Security Council resolutions criticizing Israel, Obama has been Israel’s strongest defender. His past vetoes have been driven by several calculations:
1) Concern that potentially successful peace efforts between the parties might be undermined by such declarations – It is possible that Secretary of State John Kerry finally noticed the “Kick Me” sign taped to his back, and belatedly accepted that there is no peace process left to undermine.
2) The United States can be more effective in promoting peace if it maintains unflinching support for the Government of Israel – Obama and Netanyahu’s relationship has been devoid of trust for nearly a decade, and except for 2334, Obama hasn’t missed a beat in providing Netanyahu the resources and cover he demands. And still, Netanyahu has proceeded on a course to push a two-state solution out of reach.
3) It hurts Democrats to be seen criticizing Israel or allowing a critical resolution through the Security Council (never mind Bush 41: “We do not believe there should be new settlements in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem,” and the dozens of abstentions by Republican administrations) – Obama is heading out the door, and Democrats are in the process of realignment while Trump starts reconsidering all policies and relationships. Politically, the President has nothing left to lose.
It is worth adding, Netanyahu and his Washington envoy have devoted much effort aligning themselves and Israel with the Republican Party, through Ambassador Ron Dermer’s participation in partisan GOP strategy sessions, Netanyahu’s GOP-organized Iran Deal speech, supporting Obama’s Republican challenger in 2012, etc.
With all Obama has done for Israel, and all Netanyahu and his associates have done to undermine and insult him, right-wingers still dare accuse Obama of perfidy and betrayal? “Perfidy”, the title of ben Hecht’s 1961 book, connotes betrayal by left-wing Zionists who abetted the Holocaust for personal gain – so “perfidy” is no arbitrary word choice.
When Israel gives up the security guarantees, the F-35s, Iron Dome, David’s Sling, the $38 billion, all those UN Security Council vetoes and so many other tangible and intrinsic expressions of support, then I will stop to consider Obama’s alleged betrayal and anti-Semitism.
There would have been no 2334 without the Netanyahu government’s expanding of settlements in ways that cut off future prospects for a Palestinian state. This includes the Regulation Bill to legalize unauthorized settlements outside the main settlement blocs, which was heading for adoption in the Knesset before Egypt introduced 2334.
Netanyahu and the supporters of settlement expansion and annexation benefit politically from conflating the West Bank with all of Israel: ‘We’re all in this together!’ But when EU countries require labeling of West Bank products, their intent is to isolate the West Bank – to distinguish it from Israel proper.
In his report last May, Israel’s State Comptroller declared the government’s efforts to fight BDS a failure. Under Netanyahu, West Bank settlements are promoted as indivisible parts of the State of Israel – a fiction under U.S. policy, international law, and even Israeli law. A vocal minority of Israeli Jews now boycotts the West Bank, while obviously working and living and purchasing inside the Green Line. The fight against BDS would be a bit easier without repeated settlement expansion and talk of annexation.
I don’t support boycotts against Jewish settlements or against those who condemn settlements. Israel needs to engage the world, and limiting those contacts and contracts – as Netanyahu has announced in retaliation against countries that voted for 2334 – holds Israel back and reinforces the BDS message. The expansion of settlements also holds Israel back, both internally vis-à-vis the costly subsidies for settlements and dimming prospects for peace, and globally as an albatross around its collective neck.
Aside from the steady creep of what is considered “Jerusalem”, Israel has never asserted its sovereignty or annexed the West Bank. Even by Israeli law, these are occupied territories. To win Supreme Court approval for its security operations, Israeli governments have consistently maintained the West Bank presence is a “belligerent occupation”. By all means, build in Amona and Eli and Kiryat Arba while pretending to care about some sustainable arrangement with the Palestinians, but don’t expect the world to turn a blind eye and don’t blame it all on Kerry’s speech.
Let’s also dispel the assumption that Netanyahu is taking any kind of principled stand at this point. With right-wing challengers, he needs to hold firm on settlements. He also wants to force pro-Israel Democrats in the United States to rebuke Obama and reduce the threat they pose to his GOP friends in Congress – and to his new BFF Donald Trump. And of course, Netanyahu can’t be too disappointed to find a timely distraction from the criminal investigation into his own alleged corruption.
Perhaps the only notion more naive than pursuing lasting peace when both parties are actively working against such an outcome would be to doubt for an instant that Benjamin Netanyahu detests Barack Obama and John Kerry. So again, no real surprises.
Secretary Kerry’s speech was gratuitous, not only because it came at the end of a failed effort to broker peace, and with no prospect of a serious attempt by the next administration. The speech also contained mostly a series of truisms – that without a two-state solution, Israel will be forced to choose between being a democracy and remaining a Jewish state; that the militant settlers have commandeered Israeli politics; that expanding settlements is incompatible with any hope for meaningful talks and lasting peace.
Kerry’s final speech as Secretary of State causes no real setback to Israeli-Palestinian peace. That damage was already caused by his four-year insistence on promising and pursuing final status talks when conditions argued against it.
Netanyahu was visibly incensed that Kerry’s speech focused more on Israel’s challenges than the failings of Palestinians. For 45 years, support for Israel has been the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy. If not for that reality, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be way down on Obama’s agenda, along with Israel’s other security needs. Focusing on Israel may be pointless at this turn, but it’s disingenuous to label that imbalance as anti-Israel.
Netanyahu may come to regret going nuclear at this juncture, expending the credibility he’ll need if Trump recognizes a Palestinian state or cuts aid to Israel to help cover unprecedented tax cuts for wealthy Americans, or any number of unexpected setbacks.
And too bad for Netanyahu, and for all Israelis, the next four years promise little opportunity to stave off what many of Israel’s security elite recognize as the greatest existential threat to the Jewish State – and it isn’t Iran or Barack Obama, or even BDS. It’s all right there in Kerry’s speech.