The key to understanding the significance of the recent UN resolution on Israeli settlements lies in a proper assessment of why the US didn't veto it.
The United Nations Security Council on December 23 passed a resolution condemning Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank, which was extraordinary for the fact that it was not vetoed by the United States.
Neither, however, did the US vote in favor of Resolution 2334, which censured Israel for continuing to construct Jewish settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in violation of international law.
The excuse given for why the US did not vote in favor of such an uncontroversial resolution was that the UN has habitually acted with prejudice toward Israel, and the resolution was focused too heavily on Israel’s settlements and not enough on the Palestinians’ iniquities.
This is obviously not the true reason, in light of the glaring hypocrisy of the US lecturing the world about applying a double standard toward the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The reality is that, meaningless rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, it has been a longstanding US policy to block implementation of the two-state solution. The means by which this has been achieved in collaboration with Israel is known as the “peace process”.
While the passage of Resolution 2334 is a positive development, those striving for peace should suffer no illusions about its significance. While the US’s disinclination to veto the resolution does mark a shift in behavior, the purpose remains the same: to block implementation of the two-state solution.
This may seem paradoxical, but should become clear given the historical context and clarification about the true nature of the US’s role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
In 2011, the Obama administration vetoed a similar resolution, equally uncontroversial in that it merely reiterated the international consensus in favor of a two-state solution and condemned Israel for its violations of international law, particularly with its continued settlement expansion.
The decision not to veto this time around does not mark a fundamental shift in US policy. Rather, it indicates that sustaining its policy of defending Israel’s crimes is becoming increasingly politically infeasible.
In 2011, the administration was widely criticized for its hypocrisy in vetoing a resolution that was in accordance with its own stated policy on the settlements. The US mainstream media, too, noted that the draft resolution put the administration in a “diplomatic bind” (Time magazine), forcing it to choose between acting in accordance with its own rhetorical opposition to the settlements and its longstanding practice of using its veto to protect Israel from censure for its violations of international law.
The veto was a politically difficult feat last time. This time around, the circumstances made a veto pretty much impossible.
One difference was that, this time, the draft included language condemning “all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror”, which is universally interpreted as a criticism of the Palestinians even though Israeli violence and terrorism occurs on an incomparably greater scale (including its indiscriminate use of force during its military assaults on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014).
In 2011, the US justified its veto on the basis of the fact that the draft criticized Israel only and not the Palestinians. This time, given the inclusion of such language, it could not use the same excuse.
In fact, Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, stated that the US would have vetoed it had it not also included criticism of the Palestinians.
At the same time, she expressed her government’s view that the criticism did not go far enough, and she lectured the other Council members for applying a double standard.
US policy toward the conflict, of course, has always been premised upon applying double standards.
It opposed the Palestinians’ bids in 2011 and again in 2012 to achieve recognition of statehood in the UN, for instance, in part on the grounds that Palestine lacked internationally recognized borders. Naturally, by an equal measure, Israel also lacks internationally recognized borders (and this posed no problem for the US officially recognizing the state of Israel just minutes after the Zionist leadership unilaterally and with no legal authority declared its existence on May 14, 1948).
While the inclusion of language critical of the Palestinians made it more difficult for the US to once again use its veto, as has been its practice, it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself who was his own worst enemy in making a veto impossible for the Obama administration.
The disconnect between the Obama and Netanyahu governments is famous (or infamous, depending on one’s point of view), but widely mischaracterized by the media and hence misunderstood by the public.
While Obama has been criticized throughout his tenure as being too “tough” on Israel (such as for calling for a settlement freeze early after his inauguration or reprimanding Israel for the poor timing of announcing additional settlement construction while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting in March 2010), in reality, his administration has supported Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians to an unprecedented extent.
Examples additional to the US defense of Israel’s illegal settlements at the UN in 2011 include the level of military cooperation and aid Israel has received, the administration’s defense of Israel’s murderous “Operation Cast Lead” (December 27, 2008 – January 18, 2009) and efforts to block any efforts to hold Israeli leaders accountable for war crimes, and the administration’s defense of Israel’s murderous attack on the Mavi Marmara in international waters in May 2010, among others.
Contrary to popular myth, the rift between Obama and Netanyahu is not indicative of widely divergent goals with respect to the Palestine conflict, but rather of taking different approaches toward the same goal.
The US, like Israel, seeks to maintain the status quo. The means by which these partners have long done so is the so-called “peace process”, which in reality is the process by which they’ve blocked implementation of the two-state solution.
Therein lies the danger with Resolution 2334. The US will seek to use it as a Trojan Horse to return the parties to the “peace process” and pointless negotiations—indeed, the resolution includes language calling on the parties to do just that.
The purpose of doing so will be to head off any efforts by the Palestinians to seek to hold Israeli leaders accountable for violating international law by seeking legal remedy through the international institutions available to it since having achieved UN recognition of statehood in 2012, including the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and International Criminal Court (ICC).
It is longstanding US policy that the oppressed Palestinians must negotiate with the Occupying Power over the extent to which they will be permitted to exercise their rights. The “peace process” is framed on the premise that international law must not be applied to achieve a just resolution.
It is unfortunate that the rest of the world, including the other members of the Security Council, continue to fail to realize this stark truth.
In May 2011, for example, Obama gave a speech in which he reiterated longstanding US policy that a final agreement on borders should be based on the “1967 lines”, also known as the 1949 armistice lines or the “Green Line” for the color in which it was drawn on the map following the 1948 war—during which 700,000 Arabs were ethnically cleansed from their homes in Palestine in order for the demographically “Jewish state” to be established.
This was widely interpreted as a statement of support for the two-state solution, but in truth was intended to lure the Palestinians back into negotiations under the US-led “peace process”. This carrot was accompanied by a stick, including threats that aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be cut off if it insisted in disobeying Washington by seeking recognition of statehood at the UN.
Whereas the two-state solution is premised on principles of international law such as the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war (hence the requirement of UN Resolution 242, passed in the wake of the June 1967 “Six Day War”, that Israel must withdraw from the occupied territories), the “peace process” is premised on the rejection of international law.
In fact, as if it wasn’t evident enough already, shortly after his “1967 lines” speech, Obama made perfectly clear in another speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that his administration’s policy remained consistent with previous administrations’ that the Palestinians would just have to surrender even more of their territory to Israel so that, rather than fully withdraw, Israel could annex its main settlement blocs.
Indeed, one must be cognizant of the distinction between the two-state solution favored by most of the planet, which is premised on international law and the equal rights of both parties, and a two-state solution favored by Israel and its superpower benefactor, which is premised on the rejection of international law and of the equal rights of the Palestinians.
The US’s abstention from the recent vote doesn’t mark a shift away from this policy, but is merely an indication of how this policy is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.
The Netanyahu government has, rather than cooperating with the Obama administration to maintain the status quo, made it increasingly difficult for the US to sustain its efforts to do so.
This is the true nature of the rift between Obama and Netanyahu with respect to the Palestine conflict.
Sustaining its policy became considerably more difficult for the Obama administration in March 2015 when Netanyahu, in a bid to win reelection as prime minister, dropped all pretenses and openly declared his opposition to the two-state solution.
It was in the face of this deed that the Obama administration first hinted that it would have to reconsider its policy of habitually vetoing UN resolutions critical of Israel.
After all, in light of Netanyahu so unambiguously revealing his true colors, to continue to demand that the Palestinians negotiate with this same Netanyahu while continuing to protect Israel from international censure for its crimes against them in light would be not be possible.
Were the US to continue doing so under such circumstances, its own rejectionism would become equally apparent, which would only undermine its efforts to get the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table and push them toward seeking remedy from the ICC.
As this analyst observed in March 2015, “With massive and growing global public opposition to Israel’s occupation and illegal colonization, it will become increasingly difficult for the US to provide the backing required for its continuance….
“Hence the best solution, insofar as US policy is concerned, remains to force the Palestinians to acquiesce to Israel’s demands in direct, US-mediated, negotiations. This brings us to the second problem, which is convincing the public to believe that the so-called ‘peace process’ is actually intended to bring about peace, as opposed to beating the Palestinians into submission. So long as enough of the world believes that the Palestinians should have to negotiate with the Occupying Power over their own independence, Washington will be able to maintain the status quo. If, however, the ‘peace process’ loses its credibility, the US will no longer be able to maintain the same high level of support for Israel’s criminal conduct….
“The problem with Netanyahu, from the Obama administration’s point of view, is that he makes it very difficult for the US government to sustain the illusion that it supports Palestinian self-determination. Statements like Netanyahu’s make it hard for the US to maintain the perception that it is an ‘honest broker’ in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and that it supports Palestinians’ rights….
“He will face criticism from the US for having put in jeopardy the Obama administration’s ability to maintain its policy of supporting Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians and rejection of their rights. But the Obama administration let Netanyahu know he had stepped out of line, and Netanyahu obediently reaffirmed his commitment to the US-led ‘peace process’. That alone was not enough, of course, to provide the requisite cover for the US to maintain its own policy. More will be required of Netanyahu and the new Israeli government. It might take another so-called ‘freeze’ of new approvals for settlement construction, or some other such symbolic commitment to the Oslo process. But it is unlikely that a political gaffe from the Israeli Prime Minister will spell the end of the ‘peace process’.
“At most, it will mean a significant shift in tactics for the US. There is already talk about the US itself now turning to the very institution it has long insisted should have no role in the ‘peace process’ (apart from the Secretariat giving his endorsement to Quartet statements). This is indicated by the Obama’ administration’s statements about reassessing its policy. ‘We’re currently evaluating our approach’, said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. ‘We’re not going to prejudge what we would do if there was a UN action’. The purpose of the shift in tactics would be to maintain the overarching policy. A former member of the Obama administration’s Middle East peace team, Ilan Goldenberg, told Foreign Policy ‘that Washington might be inclined to support a Security Council resolution backing a two-state solution as an alternative to the Palestinian effort to hold Israel accountable at the ICC.’ Such a resolution, Goldenberg added, ‘could protect Israel from a worse outcome’.”
Hence, the Obama administration’s decision to abstain from the vote on Resolution 2334 served two primary purposes: On one hand, it helped to maintain the illusion of US opposition to Israeli settlements while it goes on providing Israel with the means to continue its occupation regime (including with the $38 billion military aid deal concluded in September), while on the other hand, it sends a message to Netanyahu that he had better get with the program and join the US in its efforts to get the Palestinians to return to negotiations under the US-led “peace process” so as to prevent them from turning to the ICC.
In short, the US decision not to veto the resolution marks a shift in tactics forced by circumstances that made a veto politically infeasible while the overarching strategy to block implementation of the two-state solution by getting the parties back to the “peace process” remains unchanged.
Fortunately, the US has for a partner Benjamin Netanyahu, whose regime has responded to the UN resolution by declaring its intention to escalate its illegal construction activities in the West Bank. Given his nature, the US will likely be unable to reestablish any credibility for the currently defunct “peace process”, which is a good thing for the prospects of peace.
(Netanyahu also didn’t help himself by lobbying President-elect Donald Trump to intervene on Israel’s behalf by calling on the Obama administration to veto the resolution, which only made it all that much more impracticable, politically, for the Obama administration to do so.)
Unfortunately, Israel has for its own partner a corrupt Palestinian Authority, established to act as Israel’s collaborator in enforcing its occupation regime, and it seems unlikely that President Mahmoud Abbas will do what is necessary and exercise the leadership and courage to leave the “peace process” behind and move forward with seeking legal remedy for Israel’s crimes against his people.
Resolution 2334 is a step forward, but to be more than symbolic, the world must follow up its words of condemnation of Israel’s crimes with actions. Continuing to make it ever more politically untenable for the US to protect Israel from accountability for its crimes against the Palestinians needs to be a primary focus of all those interested in seeing a peaceful and just resolution.
The US will try to use Resolution 2334 to revitalize the “peace process”. It is both fortunate and ironic that those interested in peace have an unexpected ally in Benjamin Netanyahu, who will make that goal of Washington’s a difficult one to achieve. As for the Palestinian leadership, if it won’t do what is required, it will be up to the Palestinian people to demand the dissolution of the corrupt PA by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and to move forward without it.