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Obama played his last settlements trump card

Last Friday’s Security Council resolution calling for cessation of Israel’s settlement activity was a decision waiting to happen

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

Last Friday’s Security Council resolution calling for cessation of Israel’s settlement activity was a decision waiting to happen. It has been a very long time since this body sent such a clear and united message of disapproval of the Israeli settlement project. Astonishingly, the last such instance was in 1980 with the passing of Resolution 465, which bluntly and totally denounced the building of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. One of the most obvious reasons for this long delay was the US’s persistent exercising of its veto power to block similar resolutions.

This obstruction was reflective of both the domestic power configuration in the United States, and the structure of the Security Council, which entrusts disproportionate power in the hands of five countries that do not necessarily use it wisely. However, on this occasion, weeks prior to bidding farewell to the White House, President Obama chose for his country to abstain and thereby allowed the resolution to pass with the support of the other 14 members of the Security Council.

In the hours leading up to the vote, President-elect Trump did his tweeting best to pressurize the outgoing Obama administration to avert the resolution from passing. Obama, free from the need to appease his domestic political rivals, opted for prudence, ready to absorb top-heavy and at times vile criticism from the Israeli government and its allies in the United States. The Netanyahu government overreacted in its characteristic counterproductive and hysterical manner. It lambasted Obama asserting, “The Obama administration conducted a shameful anti-Israel ambush at the UN.”

Netanyahu’s cavalier acts of bravado and opportunistic anger may gain him some traction with the Right in Israel and some elements in US society, but they will only push Israel into a corner

Yossi Mekelberg

An anonymous diplomatic source briefed journalists stating, “this is the last sting from President Obama. An act that revealed the true face of the Obama administration.” In a rush of blood to his head, Netanyahu conveniently forgot that this is an administration that only recently signed the largest military aid agreement ever with Israel, and a fortnight ago handed it the first of a few dozen of the most sophisticated stealth fighters in the world, the F-35.

Regrettably, Netanyahu was in no state of mind to take a deep breath and reflect on his and his government’s contribution to this international condemnation of its settlement policy. Their deliberate actions to ensure the failure of the Kerry peace initiative, the constant announcements of the expansion of settlements, and in the last few weeks the passing of a bill allowing for the illegal confiscation of more Palestinian land, compelled the members of the Security Council to act.

However, Netanyahu for his own domestic political reasons and due to a complete lack of long term strategic thinking, embarked instead on a massive verbal attack on all the member states of the Security Council. Serving also as a foreign minister, Netanyahu, in an unusual act of folly, summoned and rebuked all the ambassadors to Israel from Security Council member countries, including US ambassador Dan Shapiro. While some members of his own cabinet called for the annexation of the West Bank and intensifying the building of settlements, Netanyahu opted to “punish” those who dared to support this UN Resolution.

He cancelled visits of senior dignitaries from these countries to Israel and of Israeli officials to their countries. In addition, he suspended some of Israel’s funding to the UN and to Senegal, who was one of the sponsors of this UN resolution. Even in a moment of rage he should know that a small country such as Israel, as powerful as it is, makes itself look utterly unreasonable and ridiculous, when it takes on a united international front. Will the next step be to sever all diplomatic relations with these countries or boycott them?

These cavalier acts of bravado and opportunistic anger may gain him some traction with the Right in Israel and some elements in US society, but they will only push Israel into a corner and lead to its international isolation. At this stage last week’s resolution has no more than symbolic significance, but rejecting it out of hand may end in more concrete measures against the Jewish state.

Anyone who cares to read Resolution 2334 carefully will recognize that it was meticulously crafted to ensure that criticism of Israel did not go beyond its settlement activity. There was nothing new in reminding Israel of its obligations as an occupying power in accordance with international law under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

For the Security Council to reiterate that Israeli settlements have “no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation under international law,” not to mention that they present a major hindrance to the prospect of two-state solution, can only be considered as stating the obvious. At the same time, the resolution takes pains to emphasize that members of the UN should differentiate in their dealings with Israel between the internationally recognized territory of the State of Israel, and the territories occupied by it in 1967. The resolution almost represents desperation on the part of the international community to salvage the peace process, based more on hope than conviction.

In reacting to the most recent Security Council resolution, Israeli officials ignored the fact that the fifteen members also called for the prevention of terrorism. Furthermore, two members of the Security Council, Venezuela and Malaysia, which have no diplomatic relations with Israel, supported the resolution which explicitly recognizes Israel and one which does not exclude changes in the 1967 border as long as it is agreed by both sides.

Netanyahu might feel bitter and frustrated that Obama outmaneuvered him so close to the latter’s departure from the White House. Yet, considering his conduct during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, he deserves little sympathy. To think that this was an act of revenge by a departing president is over simplistic. It is more a case of acting on what he believes is in the best interest of the United States, Israel and the region.

Considering his successor and his choice for the US’s next ambassador to Israel, an extreme right-wing supporter of the settlements, this may have been Obama’s last act of establishing some sense in US foreign policy towards Israel—an attempt to help it to stay Jewish and democratic. Maybe, just maybe, had Obama been as assertive on the peace process all along as he was last week, the peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians would have stood a better chance.

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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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