Viewpoints, January 2017
Prof. Eytan Gilboa
“US policy at the United Nations will be different,” was President-elect Donald Trump’s Tweeted response to President Barack Obama’s decision to abstain on the United Nations Security Council vote on resolution 2334, which described Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Normally, during the transition period between US administrations, the outgoing president does not adopt new initiatives or change policy significantly. Moreover, in this case the incoming president opposed the resolution and called on Obama to veto it, as Washington had done for decades in response to the intermittent anti-Israel resolutions that had come before the Security Council. Obama violated accepted practice and his stance was contrary also to that of an overwhelming majority in Congress (88 out of 100 Senators signed a letter to Obama urging him to veto the one-sided resolution) and American public opinion.
Obama’s decision not to block the resolution follows several developments in Israel and the US. Washington has consistently opposed settlements in all the territories Israel captured in the Six Day War. But it also stood by the principle that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had to be reached by negotiation and not by the dictates of international bodies such as the UN.
From the beginning of his term, Obama has believed that settlement construction is the major impediment to a solution based on two states for two peoples. He forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze construction for a period of 10 months, but the Palestinians did not show up at the negotiating table. In 2011, Obama vetoed a resolution similar to 2334. Why, therefore, did he change his stance less than a month before the change of administration?
Over the years relations between Obama and Netanyahu deteriorated into personal animosity and toxic verbal exchanges mainly due to sharp differences over the dangers of potential Iranian nuclear weapons and the stalled negotiations with the Palestinians. The nadir came when Netanyahu accepted a Republican invitation to speak to Congress and attacked the nuclear deal with Iran, which Obama had godfathered. The president took this as a personal slight.
Trump’s victory in the presidential election; his scathing criticism of Obama’s attitude to Israel; his statements about the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and his proposed appointment of David Friedman, a supporter of settlements, as the ambassador to Israel, created in the Israel government, the settlers and right-wing parties the feeling that a new era in US-Israel relations was dawning.
Samantha Power, US Permanent Representative to the UN, addresses the Security Council after abstaining on Resolution 2334, December 23; Credit: Manuel Elias / UN photo.
In view of this, Obama apparently believed that he needed to tie Trump’s hands before he entered the White House. It is also possible that he not only wanted to “get back at” Netanyahu, but believed that he was acting for the benefit of Israel and trying to “save it from itself.”
The Security Council vote may have political and economic consequences. It will strengthen the BDS movement, which calls for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. Other countries may follow in the footsteps of the European Union and require labeling for products from the territories, or ban their import. It will certainly strengthen Palestinian petitions in international courts against Israeli decision-makers and leaders of the settlements. It also will encourage the Palestinian refusal to negotiate with Israel. Why negotiate when an international body approves your maximalist territorial demands, and you win concessions without giving up anything in return? This is the resolution’s major flaw.
“This is the time to reconsider Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s suggestion to coordinate settlement construction with the US”
Netanyahu’s response was swift, tough and highly emotional. He strongly rejected the resolution and blamed the Obama administration for orchestrating it at the UN. But he may also have overreacted by cancelling visits of high level politicians from the countries voting for the resolution, cancelling aid programs to Senegal and Angola and singling New Zealand for particularly harsh criticism. Most Israeli parties, including the main opposition parties, severely criticized the resolution, but also some of his responses.
The Israeli response must be wise, measured and moderate. The annexation of Area C or other parts of the territories and massive construction anywhere, will only justify the vote and could lead to a deterioration in Israel’s international relations and ties with moderate Arab states. There is a need for immediate and comprehensive coordination of policy with the Trump administration, which will have its own considerations. However, it is likely that over the next four years the Trump administration would veto any attempt by the Security Council to impose sanctions on Israel for violating resolution 2334.
The vote may bolster Trump’s readiness to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a defiant gesture.
The pro-Israel Republican Congress may take steps of its own. It can pass a law invalidating the Security Council resolution and determining that an Israeli-Palestinian solution can only be achieved by negotiations without international dictates. It can “punish” the United Nations by drastically reducing the funding the US allocates to the world body (22-25 percent) and to demand that no US funds can be used to further resolution 2334. Congress could freeze aid to the Palestinians ($400 million a year) and enact laws to punish all American companies and those operating in the US that conform to 2334.
This is the time to reconsider Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s suggestion to coordinate settlement construction with the US, limiting it to only within Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs. If this proposal had been put forward previously, perhaps even Obama would have had difficulty in allowing 2334 to pass.
Professor Eytan Gilboa was a founding Director of the School of Communication and the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University, and currently is Chair and Academic Director of the IPD Forum. This is a modified version of an article previously published on Ynet.