It is the bitter ending of a bad relationship, and it’s not over yet.
What happened last Friday at the United Nations, when the United States abstained in a Security Council vote condemning both Israeli settlement building and Palestinian terrorism, may just be the opening shot in US President Barack Obama’s farewell that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has feared.
The hysterical response from the prime minister and his aides has been unprecedented and threatens to cause irreparable damage to Israel, not only in foreign capitals and at the Obama White House but also on Capitol Hill and in the American Jewish community, including among those groups that have been critical of last week’s UN vote.
The American refusal to veto Resolution 2334 was intended to tell Netanyahu that his accelerated settlement construction and inflammatory rhetoric were dangerously threatening chances for a two-state solution. Obama has been saying that since he came to office, and it is a view held by his predecessors as well.
However, like so much of Obama’s foreign policy, he waited too long to act and then acted indecisively (e.g. Syrian red line, recognition of ISIS threat, support for Syrian rebels). Coming in the final weeks of his administration, it gave him no leverage to change Israeli action and looked more like pique than policy.
To listen to Netanyahu’s incensed response, you’d think it was the first time an American president had voted against Israel’s wishes in the Security Council. In fact this is only the first time for Obama (he vetoed a similar resolution in 2011), the fewest of any president since 1967, though you couldn’t tell that by Netanyahu’s vituperative reaction.
Ronald Reagan supported the most UN votes critical of Israel, 21, most notably his joining with Saddam Hussein to condemn Israel’s reaction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor and opposing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, calling for Israel’s nuclear facilities to be put under international safeguards and condemning the invasion and occupation of Lebanon. Richard Nixon had 15, including condemnation of Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem.
What is so different today? Could it be that Obama is a black Democrat with a Muslim father? In just a few more weeks, Netanyahu will be getting what he’s longed for: an American president who doesn’t care about settlements, peace or Palestinians, who – he hopes – will follow the bidding of the Israeli premier. At least that’s what he expects.
But it won’t be soon enough to stop the next act of the Obama finale. On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry will be outlining the American – or at least the Obama administration’s – vision for a two-state solution. He will lay out positions on the core issues: borders, security, Jerusalem and refugees. None of this will be new – the parameters of an agreement have been known for years – but it will come at a time when the Israeli leadership is more resistant than ever to territorial compromise that any agreement will require.
Kerry won’t break any new ground, but his speech could offer a stark indication of which regional leaders really want peace, and which are just going through the motions.
None of that will come as a surprise to Netanyahu, although he was hoping to prevent it. What worries him most, and which may explain his public tantrums of the past several days, is what else might come before January 20.
Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea wrote that if another country decides to put Kerry’s vision for peace in the form of a UN resolution, Washington will have difficulty voting against it if it comes up before Obama leaves office. That will create another and bigger crisis for Netanyahu, who “has sown the wind and Israel is reaping the whirlwind,” Barnea said.
Another Netanyahu worry is that the framework will become the basis of an international initiative at a Mideast peace conference France plans to convene January 15 in Paris. Israel already announced it will boycott the meeting.
Netanyahu also fears that the UN settlements vote could affect the International Criminal Court review of accusations of war crimes by the IDF in the Gaza war and in the West Bank settlements.
A 2004 ICC opinion declared the settlements illegal. Israel and the United States are not members of the ICC.
Obama entered office demanding a settlement freeze; the best he could get was a partial and very temporary pause. Netanyahu disputes Obama’s insistence that settlements on the West Bank are an obstacle to peace, but most of the world and many Israeli security experts disagree.
Resolution 2334 is not a condemnation of Israel but of the settlement enterprise as illegitimate – reflecting decades of bipartisan US policy – and calls it a threat to the two-state process and an obstacle to peace. Which it is. Intentionally.
Ariel Sharon, who in 1980 was in charge of settlement construction across the West Bank under Prime Minister Menachem Begin, confirmed that to me personally. Laying out a map of the occupied territories, he showed me how the location of planned settlements would prevent the drawing of any borders for a Palestinian state. The map hangs on my wall with his signature.
Sharon’s vision is becoming today’s reality on the ground, with approximately 400,000 Israelis living beyond the Green Line, not including east Jerusalem.
Just listen to Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Israel Home party and Netanyahu’s leading rival on the right. He celebrated Trump’s election as the end of prospects for Palestinian statehood and pressure to stop settlements. In the wake of the Resolution 2334, he and other Netanyahu coalition partners have called for annexation of the rest of the West Bank. The PM, as he green-lighted building hundreds of new homes, told his cabinet colleagues to stop talking about that in public until after Trump’s inauguration.
Settlements are not the greatest obstacle, but they – like Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ refusal to engage in direct, unconditional talks – make it impossible to achieve the level of trust needed for serious negotiations and painful compromises.