Nations united in condemning Israeli settlements

Israel’s response to this very public criticism was a routine accusation directed at UN bodies of being inherently anti-Israeli

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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For twenty-four hours last month the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and two issues at its heart, Jerusalem and the Israeli settlements, were again debated in the UN’s Security Council and UNESCO. Neither of these debates was expected to bring about an immediate change or breathe new life into the defunct peace process.

However, it was a clear sign to those who favor the so called status quo that the international community will not let the issue drift off the public radar, even if it’s not ready to take decisive measures at this point.

In the Security Council the very title of the debate – Illegal Israeli Settlements: Obstacles to Peace and the Two-State Solution – left very little to the imagination in terms of what the member states believe is the main cause of the current impasse.

More controversial was the resolution adopted by the UN’s world heritage organization UNESCO, which went beyond severely reprimanding Israeli unilateral actions around the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, when it also unnecessarily and counterproductively seemed to question the historic ties of the Jewish people to the place.

Israel’s response to this very public criticism was a routine accusation directed at UN bodies of being inherently anti-Israeli, ready to exploit every opportunity to undermine the Jewish state. Worse, the Israeli government was outraged by the invitation of representatives from the Israeli human rights organisation B’tselem and the US branch of Peace Now to speak in the Security Council in New York.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ministers could not decide who the greater villains in this show were – the Security Council that invited them, or the two rather brave, though controversial, peace activists who accepted the invitation. In truth the Israeli government can only blame itself and its settlement policy that it has come to this. By ignoring an almost international consensus that the continuing occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of settlements render a peace agreement based on a two-state solution hypothetical and unviable.

Netanyahu and his ministers could not decide who the greater villains in this show were, the Security Council that invited them, or the two rather brave, though controversial, peace activists who accepted the invitation

Yossi Mekelberg

The veto power

A quick glance at the members of the Security Council reveals a list far from being instinctively anti-Israeli. The US for one, has been using its veto power in the Security Council on more than one occasion to prevent binding resolutions condemning Israeli settlements. This policy remained intact despite a clash of personalities between President Obama and the Netanyahu government.

However, on the occasion of this debate the American representative David Pressman expressed Washington’s deep opposition to the Israeli settlement project and reiterated that for the US these settlements “…are corrosive to peace,” leading to “a one state reality on the ground.” This should be an eye opener for the Israelis as it is an observation from the country’s closest of allies and friends. Additionally, Putin’s Russia, whom Netanyahu feels politically quite close to, was not far behind in its criticism of the Israeli settlements as a barrier to peace.

Their envoy to the UN, condemned the illegality of the settlements and the demolition of Palestinian houses – one of the symbols of the harshness of the occupation. Since 2006 Israel has demolished 1,113 Palestinian homes, leaving thousands of people homeless. It is not surprising therefore, that not a single member of the Security Council finds mitigating circumstances, let alone justification for Israeli settlement activity.

For Israelis the appearance of the director of B’tselem, Hagai El-Ad in front of the Security Council probably caused more controversy and uproar than the discussion of the settlement issue itself. It became more about the right of an Israeli to ‘wash the dirty laundry’ in public away from home, than the content of his speech. The calls to harm him physically and punish his organization reflect more on the state of Israeli society and democracy, than on the quality of the work of the organization.

‘Injustice of occupation’

The more accomplished a human rights organization is, the more enemies (and friends as well), it will collect along the way. His call for the international community to take a proactive role to bring to an end the Israeli “injustice known as the occupation of Palestine and Israeli control of Palestinian lives in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem…” was bound to upset and divide opinion in Israel.

Nevertheless, considering his surgically precise analysis of the routine oppressive nature of the situation, who in their right state of mind can justify the current situation morally or legally, or think it is sustainable? The never ending occupation has an obvious destructive impact on Palestinian society, and also swiftly erodes the moral and political fabric of Israel, though in a different way. Warning against it, as Mr. El-Ad did, cannot and should not be seen as unpatriotic, but as an act of public bravery, which serves the long term security and wellbeing of Israelis, Palestinians and the rest of the international community.

A further question that the Israeli government should ask itself, is how is it that Israel has turned from being one of the most popular and celebrated countries in the world in 1967, to one that is constantly criticized for its actions –this despite unimaginable achievements in so many fields. I would not like to suggest that everything that Israeli is blamed for in international fora is always correct because it is not.

UNESCO’s defense of Palestinian and Muslim rights in the holy places might have been better served by also acknowledging the inseparable historic ties of the Jewish people. Yet, sympathy towards Israel and its policies will continue to be a dwindling commodity as long as the settlements continue to expand, the rights of Palestinians are violated and they endure daily misery. This is exacerbated by Netanyahu’s government lack of genuine intention to reach a peace agreement.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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