Emotions are running high following the Obama administration’s decision to allow the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Here are seven questions aimed at making sense of what went down and what it could mean moving forward.
1. Did Obama just double down on failed “settlements first” strategy?
Listening to President Barack Obama’s aides, the decision to allow Friday’s UN Security Council resolution to pass was a last-gasp move borne out of frustration and distrust. But in many respects it resembles the Obama administration’s failed opening maneuver.
Obama took a hot-and-cold approach to Israel, simultaneously strengthening military and intelligence cooperation while stepping up criticism of the settlements. The plan reportedly was to pressure Netanyahu into accepting a settlement freeze, which in turn would potentially lead to meaningful diplomatic gestures from multiple Arab states and get the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table.
US abstains from UN vote to end Israeli settlement building
Netanyahu eventually accepted a modified 10-month freeze, but the Obama folks either over-promised or were rolled by Arab interlocutors and the Palestinians. In one instance, in September 2009, Obama officials said a number of Arab states — not including Saudi Arabia — were ready to announce overtures to Israel, when an announcement of building in eastern Jerusalem scuttled the deal. No meaningful gestures ever emerged from the wider Arab world, and Abbas didn’t show up for talks until the freeze was about to expire — and then promptly insisted on an extension of the freeze in exchange for their continuation.
Instead of providing a boost to peace talks, the Obama strategy produced paralysis. The Palestinians now expect to be rewarded with Israeli concessions simply for showing up at the negotiating table. And if they don’t get any, they apparently are content to sit on their hands and wait for the international community to impose a solution.
By letting the resolution pass, the Obama administration has essentially validated that strategy while boosting right-wing politicians in Israel now pressing Netanyahu to abandon the two-state approach entirely.
2. Did Netanyahu blow diplomatic gains by Sharon and Olmert?
Depending on which sources you want to believe, former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert translated warm relations with President George W. Bush into unprecedented US acceptance of continued, albeit limited, settlement construction prior to a final status agreement. Compare that to where things stand today and it makes sense to take a look at Netanyahu’s approach to the Obama administration.
Two caveats before jumping in: Just what the Bush administration agreed to regarding settlement construction and how formal those agreements were are a matter of debate. And let’s acknowledge there is little to suggest that Obama and his aides had any interest in running with the Bush-Sharon/Olmert framework.
That said, if Netanyahu was serious about securing the Obama administration’s support for the maximal Israeli view of the Bush-Sharon understandings — in particular the green light on building in certain settlements — he had a funny way of showing it.
By all accounts, the Israeli quid in the deal was the unambiguous endorsement of a Palestinian state plus the Gaza disengagement and dismantling of the four West Bank settlements. Netanyahu campaigned against all of the above and spent his first few months in office refusing to reaffirm Israel’s support for Palestinian statehood.
Yes, after a few months in office, Netanyahu embraced the two-state goal, but by then suspicions about his true intentions had increased — doubts that were reinforced by Netanyahu’s assertion during the 2015 campaign that no Palestinian state would be created on his watch.
Another, perhaps more important, shift was Netanyahu’s abandonment of Sharon and Olmert’s strategy of bending over backwards to downplay disagreements with the White House. If anything, Team Netanyahu took the opposite approach, from airing public disagreements to disparaging Obama administration officials to playing footsie with Republicans.
However wrong you think Obama was last week (or during the past eight years), it’s still worth asking whether a more cordial and collaborative approach from Netanyahu would have produced a different outcome.
3. Why did Egypt back this resolution?
A major Israeli talking point in recent years has been that regional chaos in the Middle East and Arab fears of Iran have created a new era of behind-the-scenes Israeli-Arab cooperation. One consequence of this new reality, we’ve been told, is that Arab governments are much more worried about ISIS and Iran than they are about the Palestinians.
Yet it was Egypt that first introduced this resolution. And though Egypt eventually withdrew the resolution under pressure from Netanyahu and President-elect Donald Trump, it ended up voting for the measure anyway after four other countries put it up for a vote.
Was Egypt’s introduction of the resolution and subsequent “yes” vote about coordinating with the Obama administration or addressing domestic audiences? If the latter, it suggests that Arab leaders are still feeling internal pressure to make progress on the Palestinian front.4. What does Putin want?
Trump has made clear his eagerness to come to an understanding with Russian President Vladimir Putin on how to calm the region and defeat ISIS. Obama is on his way out, but Putin isn’t going anywhere, so it’s worth noting that Russia voted for the resolution (and is a seemingly satisfied partner to the Iran nuclear deal). What emphasis, if any, will Putin put on Israeli-Palestinian issues when he and Trump put their heads together about the Middle East?5. Does Trump want a peace process?
In recent months Trump has consistently stressed a no daylight-style line regarding his future dealings with Israel — a message that some left-wingers and right-wingers alike have interpreted as a willingness to let the two-state solution die and give a green light to Netanyahu to proceed as he sees fit. But Trump also continues to talk about what a great accomplishment it would be if he could help broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal. And in criticizing the UN resolution, Trump sounded very much like someone thinking about the next round of talks, complaining that the move “puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position.”
Another sign that the incoming president could be serious about future talks: His naming of a trusted longtime aide, Jason Greenblatt, the chief legal officer for the Trump Organization, as his administration’s special representative for international negotiations.
6. If this resolution is good for the two-state solution, why are Hamas and Islamic Jihad so happy?
Among those cheering the resolution are Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two terrorist groups opposed to a two-state solution (not to mention Israel’s existence).
7. How strong is Jewish opposition to the resolution?
The criticism isn’t just coming from the right. Centrists groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee issued sharp condemnations. The Israel Policy Forum — a staunch advocate of US efforts to secure a two-state solution — came out against the resolution, citing the UN’s abysmal record on Israel, the lack of balance in the resolution itself and the effect of galvanizing Israeli opponents of a two-state solution. Yes, several left-wing groups (including New Israel Fund, J Street, Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu) voiced varying levels of support for the resolution. But prior to the vote, the Union for Reform Judaism — the largest liberal group, and a frequent critic of the Netanyahu government and settlements — declared that it stood “firmly against any UN resolution that would dictate the way forward on this complicated issue.”