(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Tuesday, December 20, precisely one month before leaving office, US President Barack Obama invoked an obscure 1953 law that gave him authority to announce a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling in the US-controlled Arctic and much of the Atlantic seaboard.
That move should have been noted warily by policy makers in Jerusalem. Because by announcing a permanent ban on offshore drilling, just four weeks before leaving office, he was doing something he knows is adamantly opposed by the incoming Trump administration.
Yet he did it anyway, because he wanted to lock in a legacy on environmental policy. He also knew it would be difficult for President-elect Donald Trump to overturn. Difficult, but not impossible.
On Thursday afternoon in New York, the UN Security Council is scheduled to debate an Egyptian resolution that posits that the settlements “have no legal validity” and are a flagrant violation of international law and “a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
The resolution, a bit more mild than a draft the Palestinians themselves circulated in recent weeks, calls not only for Israel to stop all building in the territories and east Jerusalem, but also calls upon the nations of the world to “distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.”
The big imponderable at this time is what Obama will do. Will he use America's veto for only the second time in eight years on the Security Council to protect Israel, or will he – in his final days in office – take out in the UN all his pent-up frustrations with Netanyahu and the settlement enterprise? Just hours before the vote, the White House has given no indication of what it will do. But Obama's move to cap the offshore drilling must give pause to those hoping that he would not support the resolution, since he knows full well that the Trump administration will not like this move.
If Obama stopped the offshore drilling, knowing Trump is opposed, then there is reason to think that he would let this resolution pass.
And if he does, then what we are witnessing is a colossal clash between old- and new-school visions of the Middle East diplomatic process. The Egyptian resolution is wedded to the old school. It re-states what has been stated a million times: that two-states is the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and that settlements are a main obstacle standing in the way of this solution being realized.
Trump, through some of his pronouncements in the past – but more specifically through his nomination of David Friedman as the next US ambassador to Israel – is signaling that he is not tied to the old school approach, but would like to look at things a little differently.
How else to explain that he chose as his envoy a man who has supported building in the settlements, called into question the viability of a two-state solution, and wants to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Old school vs. new school: the old, much-tried approach, versus looking at other options, other possibilities.
The Palestinians may indeed win Thursday in New York. They may get the resolution passed. And if they do, it will not be without significance.
The resolution calls on the countries of the world to differentiate in their dealings with the Jewish State between Israel and the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Although this is not binding, there will be countries who will do so, making life for Israel difficult in various ways. For instance, under this stipulation you may increasingly see banks no longer willing to provide financing to their Israeli counterparts with dealings in the settlements.
But it is important to note that if the Palestinians win this victory, it will have been done in the final days of the old school's principal. In a month a new principal is taking over. And even if he can't overturn the Security Council resolution, if the US under Trump does not abide by it – if the US does not differentiate between the West Bank and if it will no longer call Israel out for any construction beyond the Green Line -- then beyond being a momentary public relations victory for the Palestinians, it is unlikely to have any real lasting significance.
Even if Obama does not veto the resolution, under Trump it could just turn into another Pyrrhic Palestinian diplomatic victory signifying nothing. Trump might not be able to overturn this resolution, but by not abiding to its terms, he can render it toothless.
That, however, assumes that Trump will want to change America’s long-standing policy – spanning administrations and parties – of a distinct distaste for the settlements. Though the nomination of Friedman may be an indication that this is the direction he is going, with this unpredictable president-elect, at this point nobody can really say for sure.