The United States on Monday signed on to a UN Security Council presidential statement expressing “deep concern and dismay” with Israel’s announcement last week that it would legalize nine unauthorized settlement outposts and green-light the construction of some 10,000 housing units in the settlements.
The statement declared that “the continuing Israeli settlement activities are dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-state solution based on the 1967 lines.”
It could have been much worse.
It could, in fact, have been a replay of 2016, when, in the waning days of his presidency, then-US president Barack Obama allowed the passage in the Security Council of a one-sided anti-settlement resolution.
UN Security Council resolutions are legally binding, and significant in that they can lead to the imposition of sanctions. Reuters reported that the draft resolution the Palestinians wanted to see this week would have demanded Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory.”
Some statements are not binding
On the other hand, UN Security Council presidential statements are just that: statements, without any binding force. They are issued to reflect the position of the Security Council on matters at hand, and do not necessitate a vote. Some have called these statements little more than “glorified press releases.”
The Prime Minister’s Office said after the statement was issued that “the declaration didn’t need to be said, and the United States didn’t need to join it.”
Although this was characterized in some news reports as “unusual criticism of Israel’s closest ally,” Jerusalem heaved a sigh of relief that the authorization of nine settlement outposts and approval of some 10,000 units in Judea and Samaria, the largest single announcement of new units ever approved for Judea and Samaria, merited “only” a UN Security Council presidential statement articulating “deep concern” and “dismay.”
True, to get a presidential statement rather than a UN Security Council resolution, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to pledge that for six months his government would not approve the authorization of any other unauthorized settlement outposts, but that was a relatively small price to pay for avoiding a situation in the Security Council where the US would – as Obama did in 2016 – not protect Israel with its veto.
US Ambassador Tom Nides made headlines this week after telling former Obama senior staffer David Axelrod in a CNN podcast that he told Netanyahu to slow down the judicial reform.
“We are telling the prime minister, like I tell my kids, to pump the brakes. Slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together, which is very complicated – you’re trying to do things way too fast; pump the brakes.”
While the condescending tone of that statement attracted all the attention, Nides also said something else in that interview: “We are going to support Israel, just so there is no misunderstanding about that. We’ve got Israel’s back, both on security and at the UN.”
As proof of the veracity of that statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken engaged in frenetic diplomatic activity to prevent a situation where the US would have to choose between voting for a resolution against settlements – and the US has made clear for decades its objection to settlement construction – or casting its veto and isolating itself in the world body just as it tries to drum up support there for Ukraine against Russia.
These efforts paid off, and the presidential statement emerged instead. Some may argue that by agreeing to the statement, the US did not exactly show that it has Israel’s back. But that would be a view void of context; things could have been much worse.
This government is losing the US
THIS SAGA shows that opposition head Yair Lapid’s declaration this week that this government “is losing the US” is a bit overstated. Had Israel lost the US, Washington would have had no problem seeing the Palestinian resolution pass in the Security Council.
Equally exaggerated, however, was a statement Netanyahu put out after he met on Wednesday with Republican Senator Jim Risch of Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and Democratic Senator Alex Padilla, the junior senator from California.
“These meetings are an expression of the preservation of the bipartisan ties with Israel,” Netanyahu said.
But Netanyahu, who takes pride in his knowledge of America, certainly knows – as major polls have been pointing out for the last couple of years – that bipartisan support for Israel is not what it once was, and that while Republican support for Israel remains strong, among Democrats support for Israel has sharply declined.
For example, while in a 2013 Gallup poll, 36% more Democrats supported Israel than those who supported the Palestinians, in 2022 that number dropped to 2%. The gap between Republicans who supported Israel and those who supported the Palestinians slid during the same period from 73% to 64%, and among Independents, it fell more precipitously from 52% to 28%.
The hard-right composition of this government, as well as the judicial reform accompanied by all the rhetoric that it will place Israel on the path toward dictatorship, is not going to improve Israel’s numbers among Democrats. If anything, it will probably make them worse.
As Henry Olsen, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, wrote this week, as a result of clashes over the settlements and the plans to overhaul the judicial system, the US-Israeli relationship is “getting testy.”
But, he pointed out, “the strained relationship is about more than just policy disagreements; it is an unavoidable ideological rift between US Democrats and the increasingly conservative Israeli nation that will fundamentally alter the decades-long alliance.”
In other words, as US Democrats drift Left, and Israel moves steadily Right, American bipartisan support for this country will fall victim.
Eighty-one-year-old Vermont Senator and two-time unsuccessful presidential candidate Bernie Sanders remains a poster boy for progressive causes in America. As such, his comments on Israel on Sunday in a Face the Nation television interview are sobering, albeit not anything new.
Asked if he thought that Israeli democracy is in peril, Sanders replied, “I do. I am very worried about what Netanyahu is doing and some of his allies in government and what may happen to the Palestinian people.
“And let me tell you something. I mean, I haven’t said this publicly. But I think the United States gives billions of dollars in aid to Israel. And I think we’ve got to put some strings attached to that and say you cannot run a racist government. You cannot turn your back on a two-state solution. You cannot demean the Palestinian people there. You just can’t do it and then come to America and ask for money.”
Sanders was misleading when he said he had never said this publicly before.
On the campaign trail in July 2019, Sanders said he would “absolutely” consider cutting foreign aid to pressure Israel. And at a J Street conference in October of that year he said that if he were elected president, he would say to Israel, “If you want military aid, you’re going to have to fundamentally change your relationship to the people of Gaza.”
While then those sentiments were outliers in the Democratic Party, the concern is that this government and its policies could force them into the mainstream.
That Sanders is a Jew is also worth mentioning. Why does that matter? Because he undoubtedly reflects the thinking of many progressive Jews who are equally aghast at what is happening inside Israel.
Some Israelis may say, “So what? Who cares? If they want to influence Israeli policy, let them live here.” Yet their disenchantment with Israel – even if it has more to do with their identity as progressives than with anything going on inside Israel – will not be without repercussions.
Bipartisan support for Israel as an American Jewish issue
One reason there has been such solid bipartisan support for Israel in the past has been the perception among politicians that this is an important issue for American Jews, both for Jewish voters and Jewish donors to campaigns. In that sense, it has been good politics for politicians from both sides of the fence to take pro-Israeli positions.
But if the perception among politicians is that even Jews are fed up with Israel; if their perception is that people like Sanders are reflecting the attitudes of a segment of American Jewry – by far a minority of American Jewry, but a very vocal minority that draws an undue amount of media coverage – then where is their political gain in supporting Israel? Especially if they, too, have issues with this government’s composition and some of its policies.•