There are many facets to President Obama’s decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of 23 December 2016 (concerning Israeli Settlements in “Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem”)
First is the domestic politics of the United States. President-elect Donald Trump chirped “American policy at the United Nations will be different” in response to President Obama’s decision to abstain in the UN Security Council vote. The response from the White House: “until 20th January 2017 President Obama is still President!”
This is of course true but the reaction of Trump must be understood against the new precedent established by Obama. According to custom during the transition between administrations, the outgoing president doesn’t establish new initiatives or make significant policy changes.
Some turning points that led to Obama’s decision can be identified as: Trump’s presidential victory in the elections, Trump’s critical views on Obama’s policy to Israel and his statements about the settlements, the promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the appointment of David Friedman who supports settlements as the new ambassador to Israel.
These generated a sense that there would be a new era of relations between the US and Israel and that Israeli right wing parties and settlers could do as they pleased. In light of this, Obama may have seen the need to disassociate himself and the Democratic Party from such moves while also an attempt to tie Trump’s hands before he entered the White House.
However by Obama breaking precedent and custom and in creating a new one it will also allow Trump and other future presidents to determine new policy and events during their outgoing transition periods to their successors.
Another facet of Obama’s decision to permit UN Security Council Resolution 2334 to be passed without vetoing it needs to be considered based on the background of two facts of relations with Israel. These are:
1: The United States has consistently opposed settlements in all the territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War (1967).
2: The basic American position has been that any arrangement for a two-state solution for two nations (creation of Palestine alongside Israel) must be established through negotiations and not through international bodies like the UN.
In 2011 Obama vetoed a similar resolution in the UN Security Council. So what has made him change his policies, less than one month before he leaves office? Why has he chosen not to veto such unilateral and anti-Israeli resolutions, as the US has done for decades?
From the beginning of his first term of office eight years ago, Obama thought that settlement construction was the main stumbling block to achieving a major settlement based on a two state solution for two nations. At one point he persuaded the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to freeze construction for a ten month period but this didn’t encourage the Palestinians who didn’t come to the negotiating table.
So in his last days in office a frustrated Obama may have seen the opportunity to try for another approach, a UN Security Council Resolution, contrary to the positions of the ruling Likud party and the main opposition party, the Zionist Camp, in Israel. However in doing so he antagonized the incoming president Trump, and the majority of American public opinion
He also acted against the wishes of the US Congress. Here the pro-Israeli Republican dominated Congress may take its own steps. The UN Resolution obligates the UN Secretary to report every three months on its implementation. In response the US Congress can pass a law that would invalidate the UN Security Council Resolution for any US policy and implementation and declare that an agreement can only be reached by direct negotiations without international dictates.
A third facet is the relations between Obama and Netanyahu that declined to personal hostility. There was an exchange of toxic verbal blows mainly due to disagreement about the Iran nuclear program agreement between the US and Iran and also about negotiations with the Palestinians.
The peak came when Netanyahu decided to accepted the invitation of Republican leaders to deliver a speech to both Houses of the US Congress where he attacked Obama’s agreement with Iran. Obama saw this as a personal attack on him.
It will not go unnoticed that Israel has made offers in the past to Obama to coordinate with the United States the construction within Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs but Obama has not accepted these.
It is also possible that Obama not only wanted to “avenge” Netanyahu, but also appear to be acting for the benefit of Israel in trying to “save her from herself”
Understanding the facets of the decision is just one element, another being the consequences and ways forward.
The practical consequences of the UN Security Council Resolution can be both economic and political. It may strengthen the BDS movement and the call for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Other countries may follow in the footsteps of the European Union calling for the labeling of produce from the territories or even the general prohibition of their importation. It will certainly strengthen the Palestinian demands in the International Courts against Israeli decision makers and settlement leaders. It will also empower the Palestinian refusal to have direct negotiations with Israel – Why negotiate when you can achieve limited goals without giving any parallel concessions?
Israel responses therefore need to be wise and measured. There is a need for an immediate and thorough coordination of government policy with Trump. These need to go with his considerations.
One of them is overturning Obama’s policy both in domestic and foreign affairs. It is likely that in the next four years the incoming Trump administration will veto any attempt by the Security Council to impose sanctions on Israel because of the violation of the presidential transition custom by Obama. It is also possible that the decision may strengthen the readiness of Trump to transfer the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a defiant message! To encourage direct negotiations the US Congress could freeze aid to Palestinians (approximately – $400 million a year) and punish any American company that abides by the UN Resolution.
The bottom line is that Obama will leave office and go into the history books as not having made a positive accomplishment to the Peace Process by not vetoing this UN Security Council Resolution. Rather Obama has introduced many additional complexities that will need to be addressed and that may further delay any settlement for a Palestinian state.