By Adam Garfinkle*
(FPRI) — The State of Israel, and the U.S.-Israeli relationship, now stand before new perils—potentially quite serious ones.
You might suppose that I am referring to the implications of the recent U.S. abstention in the U.N. Security Council concerning Resolution 2334. I am not. I am referring to the implications of prospective changes in U.S. policy toward Israel come next month, and how those changes may ramify in Israeli and regional politics.
But first, let us dispense with the predictable hysteria in some quarters over Resolution 2334, and let me subtly indicate the quarters I have in mind with the following adjuration: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord, I think, hopes that us all will just calm down for a moment.
The Non-Meaning of Resolution 2334
The Resolution, which passed by a vote of 14-0 with the U.S. abstention, calls Jewish settlements in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem by the U.N.’s definition) “illegal.” Some commentators have argued that this represents a real change in the legal status quo, and that it might even implicate Israeli officials before the International Criminal Court. Some commentators also see the U.S. abstention as representing a major shift in U.S. policy. All of these claims are either untrue or true but trivial.
It has been obvious for years that the United Nations as an epiphenomenal corporate entity thinks that the settlements are illegal, and the same goes for most of its members, many of which think Israel itself is illegal, despite its UN membership. This latest Resolution changes nothing in that regard.
Otherwise, from an international legal perspective (for whatever that’s worth), neither the United Nations nor any of its members has ever positively recognized as valid the Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem after the June 1967 War or its right to settle civilians in occupied territory. The latter apparently contravenes the Geneva Conventions, though some people love to argue over that as a variety of secular Talmudics.
Various U.S. administrations, meanwhile, over the past half-century or so have evinced different diplomatic body language as regards the territories and the settlements established on them, but no administration has ever stated that the settlements are legal. Indeed, resolutions quite similar to UNSCR 2334 were allowed to pass at times—for example, the Carter administration abstained on Resolution 446 in 1979. The U.S. government has usually punted the matter as far away as possible, using the anodyne formula holding that the resolution of all the issues to hand has to be agreed among the parties to the dispute.
Nor was the recent U.S. abstention a major shift in recent policy. Anyone who has failed to notice the Obama administration’s position regarding the settlements—and especially settlement expansion—since early 2009 simply cannot have been paying much attention. This administration, and certainly this President, have made it crystal clear that they regard the settlements as obstacles to progress toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict and have ventured the view that, beyond a certain point (deliberately left unspecified, for good reason), settlement expansion would kill prospects for a two-state solution, the only one deemed viable in the longer run.
But the Obama administration has never said that the settlements were the main or the only obstacle to progress—just “an” obstacle—and the abstention doesn’t change that. Nor does the recent abstention change anything as to the administration’s overall assessment of matters. When, for example, UNESCO passed an outrageous resolution on Jerusalem this past October, the U.S. government was not shy in its response, rejecting the resolution and stating that it would “undermine support for the very legitimacy of this organization.” So the contention that the administration has been ferociously and nefariously anti-Israel from the start is pure goat twaddle.
It has had its differences with Israel on policy matters, true; but that does not make it unique among U.S. administrations—to the contrary. The list of UN resolutions critical of Israel that various administrations let pass or even voted for over the years on a range of issues is long. Besides, the Obama administration has not consistently acted in an anti-Israel mode even at the United Nations. It used its Security Council veto earlier on to kill a Resolution hoped by its sponsors to achieve more or less the same thing as the recent one did. It also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel to the tune of $36 billion to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge long into the future. If these are the actions of an administration out from get-go to screw the Jews, so to speak, then one can only speculate as to what a reasonably friendly administration might do.
Why the Abstention?
So why, then, did the U.S. delegation not veto this Resolution as well? According to State Department spokesmen, this Resolution was not as imbalanced and one-sided as previous ones. This qualifies as a half-truth. It is true that the Resolution calls for an end to violence and incitement, and everyone knows whose violence and incitement is meant. But it doesn’t name it as “Palestinian” and, what is worse—the specific language seems to really put a charge in some people—it does not “call upon” the Palestinians to do anything. It only calls upon Israel.
In other words, had the United States vetoed this Resolution, it could have justified doing so on the basis of the language, just as it can reasonably justify not doing so on the basis of the language. It’s just that kind of deliberately debased language. So the real reason for the abstention has to lie elsewhere, and it does.
It seems to lie in the President’s irritation at being ignored by the Israeli government over this question for nigh on eight years. The earlier veto meant to be a bid for leverage: You Israelis freeze settlement activity again (Israel informally did that for ten months earlier on) for a while, and we Americans will see what we can get from the other side. But as U.S. leverage in the region generally declined for other reasons, the Israeli government increased the pace of settlement activity. U.S. officials remonstrated privately and were ignored. U.S. officials low and high found this rather grating. Did the Israeli side think it could shove a forearm repeatedly into the U.S. beezer and not ultimately evoke some kind of response?
Obviously, this pushing and shoving in the background fell into a wider and more public context. The personal relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been fraught for a good long while now. This is not the place to debate who started what and so forth. Suffice it to say that, to the U.S. government, the Republican stunt that brought Netanyahu to Washington in March 2015 to lecture the administration from the aisles of the U.S. Capitol on its Iran policy was a diplomatic breach too far. It was, first of all, a partisan political ploy in U.S. terms to harm the administration abetted by a friendly foreign government, and it was a Republican-abetted election ploy from the Israeli point of view to help Netanyahu get re-elected. You don’t use the bilateral relationship for such purposes, and you especially don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of the other side (not that prior U.S. administrations have not been flat guilty of doing that themselves) for such purposes. So in a way, one can interpret the abstention as a form of payback for that affront.
The spleen-spilling of course still goes on. Some Israelis now accuse the Obama administration of having been behind the Resolution from the start. Thus, the former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Ron Dermer—a man right in the middle of the March 2015 fiasco that probably irredeemably politicized support for Israel in the context of U.S. politics—claimed that, “They not only did not get up and stop it, they were behind it from the beginning. This is why the Prime Minister is so angry.”
Ambassador Dermer says lots of untrue things, and this appears to be one of them. There is no evidence for his claim. There apparently were general discussions between Secretary Kerry and various Arab governments about wording a resolution that might not force a U.S. veto, but there is no evidence of any joint drafting of language.
Nonetheless, the Israeli government now claims otherwise and claims it is showing defiance of the Resolution and the U.S. abstention by accelerating settlement activity—as if one can requisition and clear land, draw up plans, assemble materials, hire crews, and start work in three days. Obviously, this “new” activity, notably in a place called Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem, has been in the works for months. It is close to insulting to characterize it any other way. This, too, is no surprise, for falsehoods often travel in groups.
As to the Resolution itself, what seems to have happened is that the Egyptians drafted a text hoping to get a freebie: a way to increase their standing with the wealthy Gulf states that benefact them and mollify their “street” over Egyptian-Israeli ties and cooperation, but without pissing off the Israelis in the foreknowledge of a U.S. veto. When the Egyptians got wind that the Obama administration might not veto the text because their own wording was too mild in deference to their ties to Israel, they moved to withdraw it. But some of the Gulf States—Qatar and Kuwait, apparently first in line—with the backing of Britain, not the United States, urged them forward. At that point, for reasons obscure but probably having to do with a phone call from Netanyahu to Putin, the Russians sought a delay. But urged on by the Palestinians, Qataris, and Kuwaitis, the four mostly witless sponsors (Malaysia, Senegal, New Zealand, Venezuela) went ahead anyhow. This forced the Egyptians to vote for their own resolution in the knowledge that it would not be vetoed—a vote that thereby piled potential injury onto an act of cheap cleverness gone very, very wrong.
Whatever reasons exist in the minds of senior U.S. decision-makers for the U.S. abstention—good, bad, and indifferent—does not make it wise. The abstention gives that shard of Israeli politics to the ultra-nationalist side of Benjamin Netanyahu a club with which to beat the Prime Minister’s tactical moderation into the sand. It helps the pro-settlement movement in Israel, because it’s always politically popular there to declare, as Menachem Begin once famously did at another neuralgic moment in the relationship, that Israel “is not a banana republic.” It encourages the Palestinians in their futile and escapist effort to avoid direct negotiations by weakening Israel indirectly. It will needlessly exaggerate the optical distance between the policies of the outgoing administration and the incoming one, which can only harm the American reputation for constancy, continuity, and hence reliability. In that respect, too, it constitutes an act of fecklessness squared: It is puerile to take a swipe at the Israelis by way of a clot of words, and, in this case, the words of a Resolution promulgated by one of the most feckless organizations on the planet.
The same goes for Secretary Kerry’s speech yesterday. Leave aside for the moment the contents of the speech, or, for the sake of argument, grant that some of the ideas expressed in the speech are worthy. Even were that so, it is counterproductive for a lame-duck Secretary on behalf of a lame-duck President to trot out such proposals into the maw of their own near-universally judged fecklessness. Doing so can only discredit the ideas and, as with the abstention, harmfully widen the optic of polarization between out-going and incoming administrations.
Israel is strong. It is strong economically, socially, militarily, and even (still) politically. No one should underestimate the damage that truly bad government can do, but Israel is not yet to the point of extreme peril there. Israel is also stronger than ever in relative terms to the Palestinians, and indeed to the surrounding Arab states that, in any event, have repeatedly proven unwilling to sacrifice anything tangible on behalf of the Palestinians.
Now, one experienced observer worries that by (again) rendering the settlements by law “illegal” in international law, it may complicate an eventual deal wherein settlement blocs become part of Israel in return for relatively minor cessations of land west of the Green Line to a Palestinian state. Perhaps, but it seems to me that if the two sides ever finally get to the point where they are both willing and able to make that kind of deal, it’s highly unlikely that a trickling babble of UN-speak will stop them. Getting around such minor inconveniences is what lawyers are for, and heaven knows there are plenty of them.
So in sum, to worry over the terms of a U.N. Security Council Resolution, or over the potential predations of the International Criminal Court, seems to me a classic case of the Gevult Syndrome at work—namely, the propensity of some history-scarred Jews to exaggerate the negative implications of telegenic but humdrum events. There is a very good chance that Israel will yet be thriving when the charter of ICC is still useful only as highbrow toilet paper.
The Real Danger
So if the whole UNSCR 2334 affair is not really such a big deal after all, from whence the danger of which I spoke at the outset? The answer begs a short story.
Back in early 2009, the Obama administration made a series of rookie errors regarding the Arab-Israeli portfolio from which it never really recovered. Not that the situation was propitious for significant diplomatic progress—it certainly wasn’t. But U.S. policy made things demonstrably worse. How? Well, for one thing by demanding from Israel an open-ended settlement freeze as a pre-condition for restarting talks with the Palestinian Authority (PA).
News of this demand caught Mahmud Abbas unawares. No one in the new administration had forewarned him of this, and he immediately sensed the problem it caused. The PA had never since the talks back in 1993 that gave rise to the Oslo Accords made such a demand, for the simple reason that its leaders knew that doing so would cause complete stasis. The U.S. demand forced the PA to demand nothing less, and the result was exactly as anyone familiar with the history would have predicted: complete stasis. The U.S. position forced Abbas so high up a pole that he could not readily climb back down, and the result was that the Obama administration compiled the worst record of any U.S. administration since 1967 in mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict.
And what is the relevance of this story today? Just this: If President Donald Trump and the likes of his ambassadorial nominee to Israel get to the far right of Prime Minister Netanyahu, they will do the same stupid thing, only on the other side of the fence. As former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Zalman Shoval, put it the other day, Netanyahu does not want to annex chunks of the West Bank; he does not want to accelerate settlement activity for political reasons; he does not want to directly rule the Palestinians; and whatever his ambivalence about the two-state solution might be, he does not want to be the one to destroy its possibility for all time. But this is exactly what a Trump surge to Netanyahu’s right may well accomplish in the context of Israeli coalition politics as they now stand.
Additionally, such actions as moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as abstractly justified as that may be, could trigger demonstrations and violence throughout the region, putting U.S. citizens at risk, and generating gratuitous pressure on U.S. friends and associates in the Arab world. It’s pressure a series of weak and weakening states don’t need, and that could also provoke a stall in the quiet but useful accommodation of many Sunni Arab states with Israel.
Counterproductivity Ad Nauseam
Just what is it about seemingly intelligent human beings that make them so prone to doing counterproductive things?
So it is that many Israelis have concluded that peace with the Palestinians is impossible, and so they then go and do things that incline to make it impossible. And many Palestinians have concluded that peace with Israel on honorable terms is impossible, and so they go and do things that incline to make it impossible, too. And from this confluence of counterproductivity everyone suffers. I’ve long thought that if there is an anti-matter version of O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” the Israeli-Palestinian relationship is it.
So it is that the Obama administration thought that pounding Israel over settlements would lead to diplomatic progress, when the opposite was the case.
So the Palestinian Authority thinks it can soften up Israeli negotiating positions by running wide, so to speak, to undermine Israel’s legitimacy in international institutions; but the opposite is the case.
So the administration seems to have thought that abstaining from the recent Resolution would have the net effect of constraining Israeli settlement activity and advancing future diplomacy, but the opposite is more likely to be the case.
So it is that the administration sent Secretary Kerry out to make a speech in circumstances that can only harm the U.S. reputation for reliability and thus discount and discredit the very ideas he put forth.
And it seems that the incoming Trump administration wants to help Israel, but may well try to do so in a way that could cause ultimate and perhaps serious long-term harm to it by driving Israeli domestic politics into the arms of its least responsible actors.
Why does this sort of thing keep happening over and over and over again? I wish I knew. For now, the best I can do is to raise an irreverent question about the Holy One’s sense of humor, lift my eyes to heaven and say: “Not funny, Lord. Not one bit.”
About the author:
*Adam Garfinkle is a Robert A. Fox Fellow in the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East. He is founding editor of The American Interest.
This article was published by FPRI.