Much Ado About Nothing

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
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In the days since the US allowed the UN Security Council to vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has unleashed a fusillade of abuse aimed at the Obama White House, one likely unprecedented in the almost 70 year history of the US-Israel relationship, at least in terms of its public character. Adding to the uncanny nature of the dispute, Israel can claim that it is not attacking the United States but simply President Obama and his administration, since we are in the final liminal few weeks of the Obama administration, awaiting dramatic changes in under President Trump after January 20th. Minister of Culture Miri Regev spit out: “Obama is history. We have Trump.” Indeed, Netanyahu’s government has gone so far as to promise it will share “ironclad” evidence of Obama’s perfidy with Trump after his inauguration. This of course builds on the efforts prior to the resolution in which Netanyahu enlisted Trump’s assistance in a failed effort to block the vote.

As I wrote, this level and intensity of public attack on a US government by an Israeli government is simply unprecedented. What is notable, though, is that Israel is now focusing its entire case on a largely semantic and I would argue largely meaningless claim: specifically that the US did not merely allow the vote on the resolution to take place but actually crafted the language and whipped votes on its behalf. This contradicts White House’s Ben Rhodes statement that, “we [the White House] did not draft this resolution; we did not introduce this resolution. The Egyptians, in partnership with the Palestinians, are the ones who began circulating an earlier draft of the resolution … And we took the position that we did when it was put to a vote.”

As a purely factual matter, the Israeli government’s claims seem at best exaggerated. Today Ha’aretz’s Barak Ravid published a detailed look at the back channel threats, consultations and feverish diplomacy that led up to the vote and the real great power guiding hand appears to have been the United Kingdom. Netanyahu backers dismiss this and claim that Britain was actually operating at the behest of the United States (i.e., President Obama) to push through the resolution without US fingerprints.

I think the best way to look at this is to draw back from the claims and particulars. They confuse the issue rather than clarify it. A great power like the United States is never a hegemon Mr Magoo walking forward unawares on a question as weighty and consequential as this one. It is not credible to claim that the US made no effort to make its views or possible actions known or took a role that was purely passive. Indeed, the US made clear publicly a month ago that while it would veto any resolution that focused solely on settlements, it might now allow a vote on one that also condemned Palestinian incitement and violence. Indeed, if you look at Ravid’s reporting, it appears that the United Kingdom used this as a metric as a guide around which to craft a resolution with the countries who brought the resolution forward.

In its escalating series of attacks, the Israeli government has now claimed it has “ironclad” evidence that the US was behind the resolution and says it will share this with President Trump after January 20th. Netanyahu’s spokesman refused today on MSNBC to describe the evidence. But just this evening an Egyptian paper published what some in Israel are interpreting as the ironclad evidence: a purported transcript of a December meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in which Kerry said the US was prepared to cooperate with the Palestinians on a resolution before the Security Council (remember this was originally a Palestinian resolution that was going to be brought forward by the Egyptians.)

There were apparently no details (I’m not able to read the original report in Arabic) about this transcript, whose side it’s from, or anything else. So there’s a question mark over its authenticity. But if this is true it seems plausible since since what is claimed is really no different from what Kerry said publicly in Washington in early December.

As I said, this whole argument seems at least partly semantic and entirely a distraction. At a conference in Washington in early December Secretary Kerry signaled clearly the US would again veto a resolution if it was “biased and unfair and a resolution calculated to delegitimize Israel” but suggested that recent Israeli actions and statements in favor of settlements might lead it to allow a more even-handed resolution.

Having essentially telegraphed its terms, other players – the Palestinians, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and various other Security Council members – went to work pushing forward a resolution that focused on Palestinian actions enough to meet the United States’ requirements. From Ravid’s report it seems the UK was closely involved, working with the other countries to come up with language the US would think was ‘fair’. Does this mean the US was ‘behind’ the resolution or ‘crafted the language’. Based on what I’ve just described you might be able to say that. But it would be quite a stretch. But more than anything, it misses the point. Who cares? It really comes down to semantics – just the kind of non-issue you start screaming about when you don’t have any good response to the big issue staring you in the face.

No one can think this was forced on the US. The US could have vetoed the resolution but chose not to. This was a clear and deliberate policy decision. What is also clear is that the merest suggestion that the US might not issue a veto was sufficient to get the other members scurrying to come up with something that might pass muster. This is the larger and real point. More or less the entire world – or virtually all the government’s of the world – oppose the settlement project. As Times of Israel Editor David Horovitz writes in another important article you should read on this topic, the vote laid bare what is obvious.

[T]he inconvenient truth is that while 14 nations supported Resolution 2334, and the US chose not to oppose it, those 14 are not all enemies of Israel, far from it, and the United States certainly isn’t. The Czech Republic and Panama might, just might, have voted no, or abstained, but basically the entire world rejects the legality of the settlement enterprise. And much of that world, as Netanyahu has in the recent past enthusiastically highlighted, either broadly supports Israel or is moving in that direction.

No one who follows these issues at all can really think the the other Security Council members needed any encouragement or whipping to introduce or vote on this resolution. To suggest otherwise is either wildly dishonest or completely self-deluded. It may yet emerge that the US did exert more direct pressure to advance the resolution. But for anyone who knows the geopolitics of this question, the idea that the US would need to encourage other countries to advance such a resolution all but beggars belief. A more plausible suggestion is that the US may have been more direct in making clear the elements of ‘balance’ that would meet its threshold. But again, what difference would these fine gradations really make? The real story is the one summed up in the headline of this piece from Ron Kampeas in the JTA: “With US abstention, Israel again forced to face reality of world’s rejection of settlements”

The simple reality is that the Security Council needs no US encouraging or colluding or language crafting. The UN is just a building. The Security Council is the globe. As Richard Holbrooke once put it, “to blame the United Nations for failures of diplomacy is like blaming Madison Square Garden for the losses of New York Knicks.” Global opinion in this case is more like a pent up tide, dammed water that the the US is holding back. Show any sign that the US is ready to allow any of the water to come through and the whole world or all its governments spring into motion.

This is something that is excruciating for the Netanyahu government to look in the eye first because it is bad for the settlement project in itself, or an Israel that continues the settlement project. More specifically it defies Netanyahu’s claim that the world is opening up to Israel or embracing it. In many ways this claim about Israel’s expanded diplomacy is born out by Israel’s expanding diplomatic ties. It’s really true in many ways. But the world still doesn’t accept the settlements and won’t. That’s the issue. And whatever screaming you can come up with about this semantic and basically inconsequential point doesn’t change that. Everybody knows the reality here. The world needs no convincing to oppose the settlement project. All the US needed to do was step out of the way.

As for whether I think the Obama administration did the right thing? I don’t think it is terribly relevant one way or another. Many American Jews who believe deeply in a two state solution and oppose Netanyahu still disagree with Obama’s decision. I understand their thinking. But if you believe the increasingly pro-settlement government in Israel is leading Israel on a self-destructive course, if you believe that time isn’t on Israel’s side in its conflict with the Palestinians, at a certain point you have to say, who else will act? And if not now, when? The policy of drift and delay is dangerous and deluded. The US can only help by applying pressure and refusing to abet denial. So yes, a good decision, as painful as many will find it.

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