Uri Inspektor considers how the UN’s recent resolution condemning Israel will affect US-Israeli relations.
As 2016 drew to a merciful end, hysteria gripped Washington and Jerusalem. The ‘smooth transition of power’ promised during the last month of the Obama Presidency has thus far consisted of a scramble for damage control. The President has constructed several hurdles for the incoming administration. These include filling the civil service with 103 of his own appointees, banning oil drilling off the Atlantic and protecting funding for Planned Parenthood, which Trump vows to scrap. Obama has transferred Guantanamo inmates and punished Russian cyberattacks. No less significantly, a month before they entered their 50th year of illegal existence, he condemned Israeli settlements by refusing to veto UN resolution 2334.
Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is busy firing rhetorical bullets at every country involved in that recent UN resolution, which called for an end to settlement construction on Palestinian land. Following the decision on 23rd December, he summoned the ambassadors of 10 countries which had voted for the measure. Netanyahu also halted Israeli funding to five UN institutions that he believes “are especially hostile to Israel.”
Unsurprisingly, he paid more attention to Trump’s sympathetic 140-character tweet than to Secretary of State John Kerry’s hour-long speech justifying America’s abstention. “Friends don’t take friends to the Security Council,” Netanyahu roared, promising to “fight an all-out war” against the measure. As Chemi Shalev of Haaretz put it: “In Netanyahu’s Israel, hysteria is strength.”
Kerry spoke on 28th December, attempting mostly to pacify the country. The Secretary appealed to both Pro-Israel lobbyists and UN delegates seeking change. One moment he extolled military aid to Israel, the next he denounced Netanyahu’s questionable support for the two state solution while incubating “the most right-wing coalition in Israeli history”. He asserted that the US strongly opposed sanctions targeting Israel, while also describing “Palestinians struggling for basic freedom and dignity amidst the occupation.” He seemed oblivious of the connection between the two.
But Kerry remained practical. He urged Netanyahu to ensure that the settler agenda won’t define Israel’s future, which could be either Jewish or democratic. In other words, peace is in everyone’s interest. More than 500,000 Israelis live in 140 settlements built since the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their population has grown by 20,000 since 2009. Many are located in areas which would negate any possibility of a feasible Palestinian state. Kerry acknowledged this all, firm in his belief that settlements must be removed for there to be a two state solution. This was an important retort to Netanyahu’s serial blaming of the waning peace process on Palestinian actions.
America’s support for the resolution remains surprising; Obama’s administration has so far been supportive of Israel’s cause. In 2011, for example, when the UNSC proposed freezing settlement construction, 14 affirmatives were rejected by a US veto.
Yet despite America’s support for the resolution, Kerry’s words ring hollow. They come mere months after his government’s agreement to furnish Israel with $38 billion in military aid over the next decade. Military support is even etched into law; the Arms Export Control Act asserts that any arms sales to Israel’s neighbours must “not affect Israel’s qualitative military edge”. Israel’s defence policy, its “iron wall” philosophy of military oneupmanship, is based on America’s support.
Israeli historian Avi Shlaim identifies two tenets in the approach of 20th century US politicians to the Middle East: the ‘Globalist’ and the ‘Regionalist’. Globalists observed the Middle East through the shaky lens of the Cold War, as yet another arena in which the Soviet Union and America could box for predominance. Conversely, the Regionalists sought to solve local conflicts and foster peace. Globalists prioritised Israel as a crucial ally, a democratic outpost in the Arab world, while Regionalists were more mindful of Arab interests. Shlaim concludes that, since 1967, Globalist thought has dominated policy-making. Ronald Reagan, who, like Obama, blocked UN sanctions against Israel in 1982, acknowledged Israel’s role in opposing Soviet interests in the Middle East. This attitude has persisted; “it would serve American interests to stabilise a volatile region”, Kerry stated.
Seeing the basic US outlook unchanged, it is important to question why Obama approached Israel differently on this decision, at this particular time.
Hillary Clinton won’t be there to serve Obama’s third term. Instead, we have a President-elect who is set to make the Middle East even more volatile than it already is. Trump has pledged to move the American embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, symbolically deeming the contested city lsrael’s capital. He’s appointed an ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who desires not only to legalise the settlement policy, but to expand it. Without the levelled, centralised Democrats, the most extreme wings of Netanyahu’s coalition, such as Naftali Bennet’s pro-settler Jewish Home party, may rise to prominence and make matters worse.
Obama’s administration knows that these potentialities could disturb the US and Israel’s precarious relations with the Sunni Arab states which Netanyahu strives to preserve, and may create a legitimate threat of war. Were Clinton to be President, Obama would’ve vetoed the resolution; in this period of uncertainty, liberal America needs the UN to obstruct the extremism of the next administration.
Though this resolution is mainly symbolic, coming in the final month of an 8-year presidency, it is significant. To reverse it, Trump would have to propose a conflicting resolution, which members of the UNSC would certainly veto. Meanwhile, in the Hague, The International Criminal Court is conducting preliminary investigations around a suit that Palestinians filed against Israel. The resolution could give the Court the go-ahead for a full investigation on settlements, rendering symbolic change tangible.
Still, actions speak louder than words; if Obama truly sought conciliation he would’ve formally recognized a Palestinian state, or imposed sanctions until illegal settlements were removed. Neither will come from Trump. The tension between what Trump will do and what he promises to do is terrifying on all fronts. The next four years may prove catastrophic for the world’s most unstable region.
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