Two Cheers for Obama: US allows the UN to Condemn Israeli Occupation

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Since 1972, the United States has vetoed 40 United Nations Security Council resolutions critical of Israel. Most recently, in February 2011, the Obama administration vetoed a resolution declaring Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to be illegal and calling for it to “completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem.” But today, the administration abstained and allowed to pass by 14 to zero virtually the same resolution. By doing so, the US didn’t actually support the resolution – that’s why it gets only two cheers in my book – but it declared that it would no longer shield Israel from criticism by the Security Council.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Israel’s recent history does not bode well for any resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the annexation of Jerusalem dates from June 1967 when it captured these lands in the Six-Day War from Jordan. In the following months, as recounted in Avi Raz’s book The Bride and the Dowry, Palestinian mayors, with support from officials in the Mossad, pressed Israel to establish some kind of Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, but the Israel leadership balked, “We won the war and a nice dowry, but it came with a bride we don’t like,” Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol explained. Over the next fifty years, Israel has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem against the will of its inhabitants. About 700,000 Israelis now occupy these lands.

There have been brief periods – I count nine over the last fifty years – when Israeli governments have genuinely attempted to negotiate some kind of two-state solution with the Palestinians. Even then, the onus for an agreement was put on the Palestinians. But for the remainder of the fifty years, heirs of the original Revisionist Party, which laid claim to all of Palestine and Jordan, have ruled Israel. The latest of these, Benjamin Netanyahu, has nominally supported for a two-state solution in order to appeal critics abroad, but negotiated in bad faith three years ago when Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to reach agreement, and in his 2015 election campaign promised that he would not permit a Palestinian state. Netanyahu’s coalition includes Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and several other parties that explicitly oppose a Palestinian state. And Netanyahu appointed an outspoken foe of a Palestinian state, Danny Danon, as his UN Ambassador.

Opinion polls in Israel show some support for a two-state solution. When the question is asked without any qualification, a majority even support it. But when the outlines of an agreement are presented, including land swaps and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, Israeli support drops below fifty percent. More important, the issue is not salient any more in Israeli politics. It is simply not a great concern for most Israelis. In a forthcoming memoir, No Country for Jewish Liberals, Larry Derfner writes of the Israeli city where he lives:

Politically, the city is somewhat more liberal than Israel at large; over the years local voters have given pluralities to centrist parties—Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert’s Kadima, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, and Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union—ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud. This is in line with the residents’ high educational level and general middle-class prosperity as well as their secular bent. But liberal is a relative term; based on the parties and politicians they vote for and the news media they absorb, the people of Modi’in sit very comfortably within the Israeli “security hawk” consensus: unhappy with the “isolated, ideological” West Bank settlements, but untroubled by the expansion of the large “settlement blocs” closer to Israel proper, not to mention the Jewish neighborhoods in occupied East Jerusalem. The majority of Modi’in residents are theoretically in favor of the two-state solution, but suspicious, at best, of even the most moderate Palestinians and resentful of foreign pressure on any Israeli government.

I’d use Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s concept of a “historical bloc” to explain what is happening in Israel. A historical bloc occurs when a mode of thought, supported by some but not necessarily all political leaders, and by many, but not all, in the population gains ascendancy. There can be dissent, but it will tend to exist within the framework established by the dominant bloc. That’s what has come to fruition under the administration of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There is a historical bloc opposed to any meaningful negotiations that would lead to a two-state solution that both parties would accept.

In such a situation, the only recourse is outside pressure – either in the form of Palestinian resistance or from the United States and the European Union. I won’t attempt to predict what the Palestinians will do except to say that they now lack significant support from neighboring Arab states, who are preoccupied with the conflict in Syria and with the conflict between Sunnis and Shia. The European Union has mulled demanding that the Israelis label goods produced for export from the occupied territories, but, beset with its own internal woes, is unlikely to go beyond that. As for the United States, it looks as though Obama’s abstention was a last gasp. From all indications, the incoming Trump administration will reinforce Israeli intransigence.

Last December, as the Republican primary was heating up, Trump promised to remain “neutral” on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but by the Republican convention in July, enchanted with the image of Netanyahu as a Middle Eastern strongman, he was pledging to defend Israel against any attempts to impose an agreement. Trump’s representatives to the Republican platform committee, his bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman and Trump Organization real estate lawyer Jason Greenblatt, got the party to omit its past support for two states. Trump recently named Friedman his ambassador to Israel and Greenblatt his special representative for international organizations.

Friedman’s views are closest to Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home, and an opponent of any Palestinian state. He is president of an organization that has funded settlements in the West Bank and he has denounced the moderate American lobby J Street, which favors a two-state solution, as “kapos” – the Jews who policed the concentration camps on behalf of the Nazis. He has assured Israelis that Trump will move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and has declared his support for an “undivided Jerusalem.” He will, if anything, strengthen the hand of Danon, Bennett and those who favor annexing the remaining Palestinian lands.

Trump personally intervened to prevent the UN resolution from passing. He pressured Egyptian dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to withdraw the original resolution, which Egypt had sponsored. Fortunately, four other Security Council nations stepped as sponsors, which allowed the resolution to pass. But it’s certain that a Trump administration will not allow a similar resolution to pass in the future. There is no prospect over the next four years – whether at the UN or in bilateral talks — that the United States will exert pressure on the Israelis to negotiate an agreement that would allow a Palestinian state to exist. Instead, it is likely that the United States will at best turn a blind eye to new Israeli settlements in the occupied territories – settlements that will any Palestinian state physically impossible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John B. Judis is Editor-At-Large at Talking Points Memo. He was a senior editor of The New Republic and senior writer for The National Journal. He is the author most recently of The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics (Columbia Global Reports, 2016). He has written six other books, including Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origin of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014), The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (Scribner, 2004), The Emerging Democratic Majority with Ruy Teixeira (Scribner, 2002), and The Paradox of American Democracy: Elites, Special Interests, and Betrayal of Public Trust (Pantheon, 2000). He has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and The Washington Post. Born in Chicago, he received his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.
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