Obama responds to Netanyahu but at what costs?

Speaking on CNN Newsroom after the passage of UN Resolution 2334, Middle East expert Aaron David Miller, called Obama’s action a “parting shot;” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu characterized it as “a shameful ambush”.

Miller said, “It was a parting shot in defense of what the Obama administration and Secretary Kerry believe to be the waning hopes of a two-state solution.”  But Miller expressed his concern that the U.S. action permitting the Security Council resolution to pass would “produce the opposite impact of what the administration intended.”  The resolution would have unintended effects no one desires.


President Obama’s action directing the U.S. to abstain December 23, permitting the UN Security Council resolution which damns Israel and the settlements to prevail, is unsurprising, says former ambassador Dennis Ross. Obama consistently called for a halt to settlement expansion during his two terms in office, restating what he viewed as consistent American policy.  Israeli leaders persistently resisted and ignored the U.S., supporting expanding construction.

So, as a “parting shot,” before leaving office, Obama let fly with a reminder to Israeli leaders that they cannot have it both ways, talking about peace and two states, and yet acting in the territories to undermine chances for a lasting and constructive peace.  This doesn’t mean the settlements are the only barrier to peace-making or even the main one, but U.S. leader have long believed they are one important barrier.

In her follow-up speech at the UN, Ambassador Samantha Power reiterated familiar U.S. policy, that settlement activity “harms the viability of a negotiated two-state outcome, and erodes prospects for peace and stability in the region.”  She expressed the American concern that action was required to “preserve a chance of attaining our long-standing objective: two states living side-by-side in peace and security.”

Power also emphasized, to contextualize, that “the settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the very viability of that two-state solution.”  Since 1993 and  the Oslo Accords, the number of settlers has increased by 355,000.  The settler population in the West Bank and East Jerusalem exceeds 590,000.  And in Israel there are plans currently being advanced for the approval of new units, legalizing outposts like Amona which are illegal even under Israeli law.  Netanyahu had supported a bill to retroactively legalize settler outposts built on private Palestinian land. Such actions, Power emphasized, are irreconcilable with supporting a two-state solution.

Ambassador Power acknowledged that a terrible bias runs through the United Nations, which has often led the U.S. to step in and veto one-sided declarations in the past.  However, the administration was now clearly making a new departure. The resolution this time, Power suggested, was less one-sided than past resolutions, for it spoke also of the need to end terror against civilians.  The U.S. made such a statement a condition of its abstention.  Yet, while offering an appearance of balance, the resolution’s mention of terror or incitement to violence failed to hold the Palestinians to any concrete outcomes or actions, like ceasing to fund it.  Instead, it called only upon Israel for action, demanding that it cease all building beyond the June 4, 1967 lines in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  The resolution also controversially and provocatively identified all territory over the green line as “Palestinian territory,” including East Jerusalem, meaning that such areas as the Western Wall, the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, places like Gilo or French Hill, are presumed illegally settled and Palestinian.   This is problematic, to say the very least.

This declaration flies in the face, for instance, of UN Resolution 242, which has long called on the parties to find a negotiated compromise.  The declaration is also in tension with the expectation that negotiations would ultimately produce a trade of territories, permitting some or many settlement blocs to remain within Israel’s boundaries in return for swapped Israeli land. Passed in November 1967 shortly after the Six Day War, UN 242 called on all parties to respect and acknowledge “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area [including Israel] and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”  Negotiations over borders and security would set the parameters for peace, not UN declarations.

The declaration that all settlements are illegal — updating past UN resolutions — is now a serious additional problem, creating difficulties for any compromise on border issues involving the potential trade of settlement blocs and territory. If settlements are illegal, how can they be traded?

Says Dennis Ross: “Making the concept of blocs and swaps harder to implement is probably not the legacy President Obama wants, and yet it may be one he has just made more likely.”


One school of thought primarily on the Left in Israel and in America but also with some center support sees all this mainly as Benjamin Netanyahu’s fault.  Indeed, this response sees a special failure on the part of the Prime Minister, who after the vote acknowledged no role or fault whatsoever.  Netanyahu and his spokesmen instead busily attacked Obama and the U.S., charging Obama had cooked up the resolution, and Netanyahu then called in all ambassadors for dressings down from twelve of the fourteen nations that supported the resolution.  “Israel rejects this shameful resolution at the UN and will not abide by its terms,” he announced. But as U.S. administration spokespersons indicated, Netanyahu’s government had led a policy of significantly speeding up settlement construction, demolishing Palestinian houses in Area C and authorizing illegal settlements. Most recently the saga around Amona had heightened the trend.  To shore up political support among right elements in his coalition, including annexationists and anti-two-staters, Netanyahu and others had done what they could to push President Obama to the UN, all the time hoping Obama would not go there.   Had there been some initiative in recent weeks to cut off the Amona episode, would Obama have acted?  No one knows, but it was telling that no one sought to head off what many feared might be coming.  One Israeli journalist in Maariv called it “the chronicle of a failure foretold.” Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni noted “Netanyahu gambled on the future of Israel and sold out its security for a few mandates from Bayit Yehudi.” “He knew that promoting the outpost bill would lead to a decision by the Security Council and yet he still surrendered to the extreme Right.”

Even in the aftermath, someone like veteran journalist David Horovitz wondered if Netanyahu was entering something like a panic mode and was expanding the damage. Horovitz wondered whether an “inadequately calculated process” which contributed to passage of the resolution was now playing out again in the Prime Minister’s declared war against the world.  Instead of facing up to the broad international support behind the declaration about the settlements, seeing it as a reflection of world opinion, Netanyahu was railing about bias and placing unreflective hope in the soon-to-happen accession of President-elect Trump.  Trump’s accession was neither timely enough nor could Trump easily undo the damage at the UN.

Most liberal opinion in America was equally as upset with President Obama as with Netanyahu and his allies.  Such liberals are not on board with Israel’s aggressive settlement project and remain supporters of a two-state solution, but many were especially surprised and bothered by the President’s failure to veto a flawed resolution.  In Congress, Diane Feinstein lobbed criticism at the resolution. Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York expressed disappointment and said: “Rather than bringing a peaceful accord nearer, the United Nations Security Council’s approval of today’s one-sided resolution pushes both sides further apart.”  It created “an irresponsible and inaccurate narrative, making no mention of Palestinian responsibility, either for their incitement of violence or their refusal to return to talks with the Israelis…”  Nadler insisted, “The only way there can ever be an Israeli-Palestinian peace is through direct negotiations between the parties, not with imposed solutions.”   Democratic Senate leader Charles Schumer found it “extremely frustrating, disappointing and confounding” that the resolution was not vetoed by the President.

Among Jewish defense and community organizations, too, there was broad condemnation of the Administration.  Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League expressed outrage over the U.S. failure to veto what he called “this biased and unconstructive UNSC resolution on Israel.”  American Jewish Committee head David Harris expressed profound disappointment. AIPAC was on record as opposed to the resolution and “deeply disturbed” by American action permitting the resolution to pass. Leon Wieseltier, now with Atlantic Magazine, sadly lamented Obama’s failed foreign policy that bullied friends and empowered enemies and that reserved “special anger for Jews building homes in their ancient homeland.”

Conservative elements, on the other hand, in America and in Israel reacted sharply differently.  What else was to be expected from Barack Obama? This only showed his clear anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian agenda. The Wall Street Journal editorialized about Obama’s “animus” toward Israel, called the abstention “a defining act of his presidency,” and commented on his extraordinary ability to turn policy into matters of personal pique.  Charles Krautheimer said that on this day, under Obama’s leadership, the U.S. had joined “the jackals” at the UN. Thane Rosenbaum, once a hopeful supporter of Obama,  said in the Times of Israel that Obama sided with “the forces of darkness” and always reserved his toughest stances for Israel. Andrew McCarthy in the National Review called Obama’s betrayal a black day in American diplomacy, and chided that the resolution removes any Palestinian incentive to negotiate for lasting peace. Indeed, requiring no Palestinian concessions whatsoever, McCarthy claimed the action told Palestinian leaders that their jihadist campaign would continue to be rewarded.  McCarthy put his hopes in the new president-elect who had called for a veto and then tweeted things would soon be different at the UN after his inauguration.

In Israel, Naftali Bennett, the Education Minister and head of the Jewish Home Party (Habayit Heyahudi), speaking from Netanyahu’s right flank, called out for an Israeli departure from a two-state policy and for the annexation of large chunks of the West Bank.  In Bennett’s radical right view, Israel should take the maximum territory with the minimum of Palestinians.  Bennett continued pressing Netanyahu to abandon the effort to marry two states together with the settlement project, pushing him to choose toward his right.  Some observers began wondering whether Netanyahu’s double game was any longer still possible, working with his rivals in his coalition to bolster the settlements while at the same time working against them to sustain U.S. relations by continuing to support a two-state solution.

Back in the U.S., in Congress, Lindsay Graham and Ted Cruz postured about cutting off funds to the UN; Paul Ryan called Obama’s action “absolutely shameful;” John McCain spoke against it as well. Everyone was waiting on the accession of a new President, Donald Trump, who based on several campaign statements and his pick of an ambassador, seemed likely to embolden the Israeli right wing further.  There was even talk about the orange man’s early options, including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cutting funding to the UN, cutting funding to the Palestine Authority, and visiting Jerusalem personally.


So what are the likely consequences and impacts of the UN resolution?  What will be its meaning?  Although largely symbolic, without any clear or immediate practical effects, the resolution does call on member UN “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” Differentiation, or distinction, a policy initiative that has been talked about especially in Europe in recent years, means the differential treatment by states of Israel and Israel’s territories.   The basic idea is acting strategically to make Israelis feel some of the costs of the government’s settlement policy.  Initiatives consistent with this are boycott, divestment and other forms of blacklisting aimed against firms, settlements, and institutions in the West Bank. It is possible the resolution may turn out to be a step toward European and other nations or groups of nations taking such action.

In addition, the declaration stands as an unearned boon to members of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement who are active on American and other campuses, who can now work to mobilize students based on its declarative statements that Israel’s establishment of settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, have “no legal validity”, and constitute a flagrant violation under international law. BDS supporters have been sharply critical of the resolution, believing that some of its language blunts the Palestinian right to resistance by any means possible (the statement opposes terror and calls for continued security cooperation), and because the resolution seeks openly to bolster a two-state solution (leading BDSers want a one state solution). They are not crazy either about the distinction suggested between Israel proper and the territories, as most BDS boycott activity focuses on Israel as a whole.  But, in a year to be marked in June by the 50th anniversary of the ongoing occupation, it will not be long before BDSers hook into the language of the resolution as a valuable resource. Count on it.

The language of UNSCR 2334 identifies the West Bank and East Jerusalem as Palestinian land rather than disputed territory.  It adds weight to the legal case against West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements under international law. The language also declares the Western Wall, the Old City, the neighborhoods around Hebrew University and on the edge of Jerusalem as occupied.  It fails to differentiate Jerusalem from other areas and implies the Jewish Quarter is Palestinian. All this language is accompanied by a singular demand – only that Israel should cease and desist with settlements, not that Palestine should cut out its rejectionism or violence.

Finally, in the wake of this UN action, and despite the call in the resolution to move forward now to negotiations, with periodic reporting every three months on progress, there is clearly diminished incentive for Israel or the Palestinian Authority to enter negotiations while the UN Security Council pronounces that the 1949 armistice lines stand as the beginning standard for all negotiations by the parties.  This is on its face unacceptable to Israel, and it is more likely that the PA will duck negotiations and continue its strategy of using international institutions to obtain pronouncements – perhaps next the International Criminal Court – rather than enter negotiations with few or no preconditions. Indeed, the resolution rewards those who favor “internationalization” of the conflict, using international forums such as the U.N or International Criminal Court to impose terms on Israel, rather than resorting to negotiations required under 242.  Obama made his point about the settlements, but at what costs?

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.