Yesterday the Obama administration chose to abstain from a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the on-going growth of Israeli settlements past the so-called ‘green line’ as illegal and a threat to the possibility of a future two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It also condemned Palestinian violence, incitement and reaffirmed support for a ‘two-state solution’.) This has been denounced as a betrayal by the Israeli government in the fiercest terms. Many right-wing American Jews have condemned the decision in no less vitriolic terms, not to mention virtually all Republicans. I should add though that even many American Jewish supporters of a genuine two-state solution have reacted with at least discomfort and in some cases anguish and anger at President Obama’s decision.
This latter point – about two-staters who find this mortifying – may seem odd since the resolution says very little that has not been formal US policy going back almost half a century. In part this is because the UN, though it played a key part in giving birth to the modern state of Israel because of a unique and transitory set of circumstances, has often been reflexively hostile to Israel and even dangerous to it at very points over the last 70 years.
But the whole drama confirms what I believe is the overriding reality of the current situation, which is that America’s hyper-support of Israel and (by default) the Israeli settlement project has made the US into a dangerous enabler of Israel’s own self-destructive behavior. There is no longterm solution to the conflict other than some form of partition of the land. This is dictated by an iron grip of demography and ideology. You can either have partition, a binational state or a state in which Jews and a portion of the Arab population (those who are currently citizens of Israel) have political rights and the majority of Arabs (those who now live in the territories) do not. You can call that last option anything you want. But the countries of the world will never and should never accept it. The binational option would be the end of Zionism and either a politically unstable and unworkable state or a slow motion and perhaps fast motion bloodbath. The least bad option for everyone is partition (indeed, it needn’t be a bad option at all with creativity and good will, but both are close to non-existent).
This is obvious. The alternative ideas one hears from the Zionist right are either ugly or fantastical. From a Israeli and Zionist perspective, whether the Palestinians are nice or pragmatic or want peace or don’t is basically beside the point. The trajectory is the same regardless. These questions affect timing and process, not end result.
The US’s hyper-protection, not only from genuine threats (which I strongly support) but even from symbolic criticism, has simply enabled Israel’s self-destructive behavior, allowed the Israeli political nation to ignore these realities and pretend that somehow they’ll go away.
Like any person or nation, Israel will try to have it all so long as they’re shielded from the consequences of trying to have it all and the hard decisions which follow it. We all do this. It’s human and national nature. If the US could shield Israel from these consequences forever, that would be one thing. But it can’t. Does anyone think that the US will be more powerful in military, economic and diplomatic terms in 30 or 50 years than it is today? Doubtful. The coddling has grown so total that the current government frequently approaches the US as a peer superpower rather than the junior partner in a relationship with a great power.
Almost all of us will ignore the consequences putting off hard decisions as long as we are shielded from those consequences of doing so.
This is all the result of enabling fantasies and self-destructive behavior. At the risk of a painful analogy, if parents keep spending, bailing out and enabling, kids will keep taking excessive risks, overspending, etc.
Obama partisans are saying this is a wake up call for Israeli intransigence on settlements. Detractors say it’s a parting shot he should have had the courage to issue before the closing weeks of his presidency. Both are probably true. It’s a debate I don’t really care about. Because it’s not about Obama. There is literally no future in the Obama presidency.
Years ago, I think in 2009, I was at an off the record briefing with the President and a handful of other journalists. This was, I think, not long after the first confrontation over settlement policy. I took the opportunity to ask the first question. I asked the President if he didn’t think that insisting that Israel stop settlement building and then relenting when the Netanyahu government refused wouldn’t have negative consequences – not only on the specifics of settlements but on whether the President could be defied.
The President’s answer was both detailed and disappointing. The gist was that ending settlement building and seriously negotiating a settlement was in Israel’s interest as well as in the US interest. This is what we believed and this is why the administration had insisted. Indeed, it was a more pressing interest for Israel than the US. We made our position clear, the President argued. We pressed for it. But at a certain point we weren’t going to spend so much time, energy and political capital trying to convince the Israelis to do what was largely for their own good. The President had a lot of other big issues to deal with – as indeed he did in late 2009.
This was a disappointing answer on a number of fronts. For me personally it was disappointing in a specific way. In a narrow calculation of US interests and the various priorities the President then had to contend with at the time, this may have been a reasonable analysis of the situation. But my interest in the resolution of this dispute goes beyond narrow US interests. Quite contrary to critics who say President Obama somehow had it in for Israel, I think he is a genuinely committed friend. But there was only so much energy and priority he was going to commit to it. He ended his answer with something to the effect of, they’ve made their choice and they’ll have to deal with the consequences.
Friends tell friends the truth. Friends don’t enable self-destructive behavior. Even if you put morality and values entirely to the side, the current trajectory of West Bank settlement has no good outcome for Israel.