Following the abstention of the United States, the UN Security Council was able to adopt Resolution 2334 on 23 December that reaffirmed that Israel’s establishment of settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, had no legal validity and constituted a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the vision of two states living side-by-side in peace and security within internationally recognised borders.
Since then, Israel has launched a fierce attack on the Obama administration in the US, accusing it of violating the long-standing position of the United States towards Israel. Explaining her delegation’s abstention in the Security Council vote, the representative of the United States at the UN said it had been a long standing-position of her country that the settlements undermined Israel’s security and eroded prospects for peace and stability.
For his part, the Israeli representative stated that those who had voted yes to the resolution had voted no to negotiations, progress and a chance for better lives for both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as to the possibility of peace. In his view, the resolution would continue to provide excuses for the Palestinians to avoid recognising Israel’s right to exist. The Security Council had voted to condemn the state of Israel and the Jewish people for building homes in the land of Israel, denying them “their eternal rights” in Jerusalem, he said.
“We will continue to be a democratic state based on the rule of law and full civil and human rights for all our citizens, and we will continue to be a Jewish state proudly reclaiming the land of our forefathers,” he said. Criticising the US abstention, he said that “it was to be expected that Israel’s greatest ally would act in accordance with values that we share and veto this resolution.” Other accusations came from the cabinet of the Israeli prime minister as well as other officials who accused US President Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry of being behind a “shameful move against Israel at the UN”.
Ironically, the Israeli position was supported by US President-elect Donald Trump, who put out a statement opposing the resolution. “As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations… This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis,” Trump said. Kerry then made a long speech on 28 December defending the Obama administration’s position and elaborating key points for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
The situation raises multiple questions regarding the timing of the American steps and their substance, as well as their expected impacts on the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the one hand and Israeli relations with the Arab world on the other.
Regarding the timing, it should be noticed that despite sporadic declarations expressing the Obama administration’s disapproval of Israeli practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it waited eight years before elaborating a plan on how to deal with this conflict. Consequently, it is legitimate to say that this initiative was born dead. The Obama administration now does not have the time to oppose the policy of Jewish colonisation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or to lead a new round of negotiations with a view to imposing its views. It does not have the time to pressure Israel on this issue or to put an end to a conflict followed by Washington for decades.
The steps were taken at a moment of political transition in the United States. A newly elected president will soon be inaugurated, and he has his own political agenda supporting Israeli positions. Far from being just electoral promises, Trump’s agenda was reiterated after the elections and took form with the announcement of the name of a new American ambassador in Israel known for his pro-Israeli positions.
In this context, certain analysts consider the Obama administration’s steps as part of a “pre-emptive revenge” policy towards the newly elected president. The decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats from Washington as a punishment for their country’s alleged electronic interference in the US presidential elections supports this hypothesis.
The abstention of the Obama administration in the UN Security Council vote also comes almost two weeks before the holding in Paris of an international conference on peace in the Middle East scheduled for 15 January 2017 and a few days before the arrival of president Trump in the White House. The fact that the outgoing US administration will thus take part in this conference provides another occasion for it to consolidate its new approach at an international gathering that Paris wants to be as large as possible.
It is expected that the Paris Conference will follow the terms of the UN Security Council Resolution and make it difficult to defend Israeli settlement policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
ISRAEL’S INTERESTS: Despite the fact that the UN Security Council Resolution did not contain new elements, it is worth noting that the Israeli government was keen to abort it as it is contrary to its policy of colonisation and its attempts to legalise the occupation.
The adoption of this resolution could complicate this project at a time when Israel expected support from the newly elected US president. The question is whether this project in fact serves the interests of Israel.
In January 1977, George W Ball, a former American official, published an article in the US journal Foreign Affairs entitled “Saving Israel in Spite of Herself” suggesting that the US should take a stronger and more assertive line in the search for Middle East peace. In doing so, he reflected a tendency prevailing at that time recommending stronger American policy and criticising the nature of the relationship between the US and Israel, described as “dependency without responsibility.”
Almost 37 years later, Kerry developed much the same logic in his speech on 28 December. For him, there is a fundamental reality. If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic. It cannot be both, and it won’t ever really be at peace if it tries. Moreover, the Palestinians will never fully realise their vast potential in a homeland of their own with a one-state solution. However, the status quo is leading towards one state and a perpetual occupation, yet most of the public either ignores this or has given up hope that anything can be done to change it. As a result of this passive resignation, the problem is getting worse, the risks are becoming greater, and the choices are narrowing, Kerry said.
Kerry underlined the fact that one prominent Israeli minister who heads a pro-settler party in Israel had declared just after the US presidential elections that “the era of the two-state solution is over.” Many other coalition ministers in Israel have publicly rejected a Palestinian state, and they are increasingly getting their way, with plans for hundreds of new units in East Jerusalem recently announced and talk of a major settlement building effort in the West Bank to follow. Taking these things into consideration, Kerry asked how Israel can reconcile permanent occupation with its democratic ideals and how the US can continue to defend the occupation while living up to its own democratic ideals.
Nobody has ever provided good answers to those questions because there aren’t any such answers. Ignoring them will lead to an increasing risk of more intense violence between the Palestinians and the Israeli settlers and despair among the Palestinians that could create fertile ground for extremists.
Not only did Kerry present the Obama administration as trying to save Israel despite itself, but he also said that no previous American administration had done as much for Israel’s security as the Obama administration.
Far from admitting the weaknesses of US policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is obvious that the Obama administration has failed to exercise pressure on its ally in order to restore peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The fact that the colonisation continued during the Obama administration has worsened the situation. In fact, the administration was neither strong enough to stop the colonisation nor able to use its political, economic and military support for Israel to impose a peaceful settlement of the conflict along the lines of the two-state solution.
Looking at the current situation and the declared position of President-elect Trump as well as that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition government, it seems that the colonisation will continue, which means more Palestinian suffering, possibly leading to an unprecedented explosion. This situation requires concentrated efforts to persuade the new American president that he cannot identify his country’s interests with supporting an ambitious and dangerous Israeli colonisation project in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The writer is a former diplomat specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. He has taught at universities in Egypt and abroad and has published widely in Europe and the Arab world.