Analysis: Obama's chosen legacy is settlement obsession

This is the legacy he wanted to leave – that he got tough on Israeli settlements and changed the more than 35-year-old US policy of protecting Israel at the UN.

December 25, 2016 08:11
3 minute read.
Gilo neighborhood

Inside Gilo, a neighborhood of some 27,000 residents. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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When US President Barack Obama took over the White House in 2009, one of the first actions he took was to ambush Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and call for a complete and total settlement freeze everywhere, including in east Jerusalem.

That move pushed the Palestinians up a tree and crippled the Middle East diplomatic process. How could the Palestinians negotiate from a different starting point? If the US president – for the first time ever – said Israel must stop all settlements, then it was clear from that moment onward the Palestinians would never accept anything less.

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And it was equally clear that Israel would never accept such a diktat, especially in east Jerusalem. It would never accept the notion that it could not build anywhere over the Green Line: not in Ramot or Gilo in Jerusalem, nor in Ma’aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank.

Obama’s first move effectively killed the diplomatic process for the next eight years. His last act on the Middle East – the one he took Friday by not vetoing an anti-settlement resolution – will make reaching a negotiated solution any time soon more difficult.

By allowing the UN to pass this resolution, he effectively signaled to the Palestinians that their tactic pays: that they can stay away from negotiations, not compromise, and sit back and wait and get the world to impose a solution on Israel.
US abstains from UN vote to end Israeli settlement building

This resolution, even though it has no immediate impact and is not binding, is the beginning of the story, not the end.

The Palestinians will take this victory and run with it to other forums and organizations, first and foremost the International Criminal Court. They will use it as a reason to demand sanctions against Israel. The resolution, with its call for the nations of the world to differentiate in their dealings with Israel between pre- and post-1967 Israel, will give a huge boost to the BDS Movement.

And the resolution will trigger calls inside Israel for reactions, such as annexing Ma’aleh Adumim and for greater building throughout Judea and Samaria. These steps will, in turn, make getting the Palestinians back to the table more difficult. But one thing is clear: Israel is not going to buckle under to a UN Security Council resolution taken by a president on his way out the door.

It is not clear what motivated Obama to take this measure, knowing full well that it goes against the express wishes of the incoming administration.

Obama’s spokesmen have said that there is only one president at a time, and that he is well within his rights to take measures such as this one.

Which is true – but is it wise and prudent? What does it accomplish? Yes, it sends a strong message of displeasure and disapproval.

But with a new administration coming into power in a matter of days, an administration that is certainly going to have a much different view on the matter, there will be no follow- up from Washington.

And without follow-up from Washington – in fact, with the incoming administration likely to do what it can to undo the effects of this resolution – it is unlikely to have any real significance.

Instead, Obama wanted to send a message to historians.

This is the legacy he wanted to leave – that he got tough on Israeli settlements and changed the more than 35-year-old US policy of protecting Israel at the UN.

Others will read that legacy in a different way: Obama’s obsession with the settlements, seen in bookend actions at the beginning and end of his term, made negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue more difficult, not easier.

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