A key resolution on the Israel-Palestine conflict is now before the UN Security Council. Largely echoing stated US policy, the resolution embraces negotiations, endorses the creation of a Palestinian state, and demands an immediate halt to Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But even though the resolution echoes US policy, President Obama is under pressure to veto the UN resolution from forces in Washington who want to protect the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Can President Obama say no to this pressure? Yes, he can!
Prominent former US government officials, including Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Ambassador James Dobbins, have written to President Obama, urging him to instruct our Ambassador to the United Nations to vote yes on this initiative, noting that it echoes US policy.
It’s not an immutable law of the universe that the U.S. has to veto U.N. resolutions critical of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Indeed, last year, the U.S. promised the Palestinians to “consider allowing UN Security Council condemnation of any significant new Israeli settlement activity,” the Guardian reported.
Some DC conventional wisdom suggests that there is no way politically that President Obama can fail to comply with any demand from the “Israel lobby” to veto the UN resolution.
But there are reasons in this case to doubt whether this conventional wisdom must necessarily be right.
The “Israel lobby” isn’t as internally unified on the question of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank as it is on say, U.S. aid to Israel. A lot of folks who “support Israel” do not support the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, because it is obvious that there is a fundamental contradiction between Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. There is a choice to be made: settlement expansion or peace. We cannot have both.
There would be a real cost to a U.S. veto that would be higher today than in the past. There isn’t any credible excuse for a U.S. veto in the Security Council of the U.S.’ own position that can be sold internationally, and particularly in the Middle East, at a time when the U.S. is facing unprecedented challenges on a number of fronts. The arguments that have been used so far in Washington to try to justify a U.S. veto won’t wash internationally. The UN Security Council isn’t an “anti-Israel” venue – a venue where the U.S. has a veto won’t ever be “anti-Israel” in any meaningful sense of the term. Indeed, the key players in the Security Council look a lot like the key players in the “Quartet” that is supposedly overseeing the “peace process” – the U.S., the EU, Russia, and the U.N. And the purpose of the resolution isn’t to dodge negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; it explicitly embraces them. The purpose is to try to make those negotiations meaningful by effectively imposing a parameter on them that all sides have already agreed to, but that the U.S. has failed to effectively enforce: a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion.
As Time Magazine noted last week, after Tunisia, Arab governments feel under greater pressure from “the Arab street.” This is not a time when the U.S. can rely on Arab governments to protect the U.S. government from contradictions in the U.S. position.
The leak of documents yesterday by Al Jazeera and the Guardian on the U.S.-led “peace process” expose that “process” as currently being a charade which is not leading towards a resolution of the conflict (in case there was anyone who still had any doubts about that.)
Here’s Tzipi Livni, then Israel’s foreign minister, in 2007:
At a west Jerusalem meeting in November 2007, [Livni] told [Ahmed Qureia, then senior Palestinian negotiator] that she believed Palestinians saw settlement building as meaning “Israel takes more land [so] that the Palestinian state will be impossible”; that “the Israel policy is to take more and more land day after day and that at the end of the day we’ll say that is impossible, we already have the land and we cannot create the state”. She conceded that it had been “the policy of the government for a really long time”.At the end of 2007, though, “it is still the policy of some of the parties but not the government”.
Of course, the parties to which Livni then referred now are the Israeli government. And for the forseeable future, in the absence of effective outside pressure, “take more and more land day after day and that at the end of the day we’ll say that is impossible, we already have the land and we cannot create the state” will continue to be the policy of the Israeli government.
All this is going to put more pressure on the pro-U.S. wing of the Palestinian leadership and the pro-U.S. Arab governments to demonstrate that they have something else going on besides the failed U.S.-led “peace process.” If the door to the UN Security Council is closed to them, that energy is going to go somewhere. It’s likely that alternative venues and channels for that energy are going to be much more disliked by the U.S. than the UN Security Council, where the U.S. holds a veto.
If the U.S. wants to keep governments in the region onside against Iran’s nuclear program, a U.S. veto in the Security Council of the U.S.’ own position on Israeli settlements is not going to help with that. On the contrary: a U.S. veto of its own position on Israeli settlement expansion is going to force U.S. allies in the region to put more distance between themselves and the U.S.
This is not a time when the U.S. can easily afford to take more hits politically in the region. The current U.S. gambit in Lebanon does not seem to be going well at the moment. It may well turn out that, as in the recent past, current efforts by the U.S. to reduce the influence of Hizbullah over the government in Lebanon will backfire by producing a government in Lebanon in which Hizbullah has even more influence than before. If this happens, it will make governments in the region even warier of being perceived as close to the U.S.
If the U.S. vetoes the U.N. resolution, it will signal to the region that the U.S. is incapable of meaningfully supporting international efforts for a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. A U.S. veto will embolden the most reactionary forces in Israel, which have been escalating their efforts to silence Israeli dissent against the occupation.
But if the U.S. supports the resolution, it will signal to the region that the U.S. is no longer determined to stand in the way of international efforts to promote a just resolution.
We have been in a situation like this before. In 2008, the right wing of the “Israel lobby” pushed the U.S. House to pass a resolution that essentially called for a U.S. naval blockade of Iran, which of course would be an act of war, although the resolution did not use those exact words. The DC conventional wisdom said that resolution would go through the House “like a hot knife through butter.” But it did not turn out to be so. When peace groups got activated, and it became an issue outside of the usual circles, many House Democrats took a second look, and decided that a resolution pushing the U.S. towards war with Iran was not just another resolution written by the “Israel lobby” for Congress to sign.
This could be like that. Because the draft UN Security Council resolution echoes stated U.S. policy, because the U.S.-led “peace process” is in a state of total collapse, because U.S. leadership in the region is facing unprecedented challenge, it’s not a no-brainer politically for the U.S. to veto. The international political price of a veto will be high, and the domestic political price for failing to veto is likely to be minimal – if this becomes an issue on which a broader public gets engaged.
This is a historic opportunity for President Obama to show leadership and back up the words of his speech in Cairo with deeds. Urge President Obama to support the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.