(photo credit: REUTERS)
The response by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Friday’s vote in the UN Security Council to condemn settlement construction essentially amounts to an irrational paroxysm.
On Friday, the notion that Israel’s improved diplomatic relations with the Arab world would immunize the settlements from international scrutiny was thoroughly demolished.
The brief victory achieved by pressuring Egypt to pull the resolution may soon backfire as well. This is at least the second time in the last year that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been humiliated by Netanyahu, the first being the botched attempt to bring Isaac Herzog into the coalition, which not incidentally coincided with Sisi’s speech on peace.
Instead of finally grasping what almost every junior diplomat already understands – that the settlements are a losing issue in the international arena, regardless of how words are twisted – Netanyahu has decided to peg good relations with Israel to support of, or at least acquiescence to, the settlement movement. This response, which is inconsistent with the diplomatic reality revealed by the vote, could have potentially devastating long-term consequences.
It should be acknowledged from the start that Netanyahu will soon be given a solid hand by the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump. The selection of hard-line bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman as Trump’s choice for US ambassador to Israel leaves little hope for supporters of strong American leadership to achieve a two-state solution. It leaves even less hope for those of us who hope the US will continue to withhold the veto on similar Security Council resolutions in the future.
But Trump won’t be president forever, and Israel can’t survive on warm relations with only one country, even if that country is the world’s singular superpower. Israel’s largest trading partner is not the US but the European Union, which in 2015 issued guidelines on labeling settlement goods. Indeed, the recently passed Security Council resolution called on countries to make clear distinctions between Israel proper and the settlements, an arrangement that has a precedent in Israel’s participation in the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 program.
Unless one believes Trump, a businessman, will leverage the full power and influence of the United States on behalf of the economy of Gush Etzion, Israel is entering an era in which some sort of separation between Israel and settlements in the occupied territories will be necessary. In this regard, calls for Israel to annex Area C of the West Bank are the most shortsighted of all policy proposals. By complicating the distinction between Israel and the settlements, Israel risks isolating itself entirely.
Regardless of how Israel responds to Friday’s vote, the campaign will end without a single country changing its fundamental position on settlements (including, in my view, the US under Trump). Like with Horizon 2020, the settlement product labeling, and the Iran nuclear agreement, Netanyahu will eventually come to terms with reality – but only after causing gratuitous damage to Israel’s diplomatic standing.
Imagine if Netanyahu had responded in a different way to the American abstention. Imagine if he had told the cabinet on Sunday that Israel can’t continue to build settlements deep in the West Bank, and that the recent efforts to legalize settlements built on private Palestinian land had projected a position Israel could not defend. Naftali Bennett would have certainly bolted the coalition, and Netanyahu probably wouldn’t have convinced a skeptical liberal like myself to support him. But he would have found a ready ally in Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and probably Herzog, too, who is facing a tough leadership primary next year. The diplomatic fallout would have been limited.
Instead, he is making empty threats at countries that have already seen this show in prime time and its reruns on cable. Eventually, the ambassadors will return, the development aid will be restored, and business will return to usual. However, the prominence of the settlement issue will continue to grow. I suspect Netanyahu knows this; at the end of the day, this is just theater for the most hard-line activists on the Right, whom Netanyahu must convince that he, and not Bennett or a rival Likud MK, is in charge.
One hopes it won’t all come down to international pressure. Israel’s main opposition figures, Herzog and Yair Lapid, have criticized the Security Council resolution but have placed the blame where it belongs: at Netanyahu’s desk. It is the policies of the last three Netanyahu-led coalitions, including this one, that have put Israel in the precarious diplomatic situation it is in today. After the events of the last month, particularly the scramble to save Amona by all means necessary, how can anyone suggest with a straight face that Netanyahu plans to advance the two-state solution? Whether this resolution will be a wake-up call for Israel’s moderates or a clarion call for its expansionist extremists remains to be seen. One thing we can be certain of, though, is this: As long as Israel has a leader who is most concerned about preventing a political challenge from the Right, Israel’s diplomatic situation will only get worse.
Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics and US-Israel relations from New York.