Special Feature: Obama’s Veto At the UN, Its Causes and Its Effects, Part I

The much anticipated United States veto of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements came about on Friday. It surprised no one, but, as I wrote last week, the repercussions of this veto are going to be much deeper than the numerous previous vetoes.

The US has vetoed a great many UNSC resolutions that dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though there have also been many, even in recent years, which the US did

Susan Rice and Barack Obama saw AIPAC coming and got the message from Congress loud and clear

not veto. But this time the resolution was not only perfectly in line with official US policy, but it dealt with an issue the current administration had confronted head-on but had failed to affect in any measurable way.

Susan Rice’s statement of explanation about the US veto is an absolute mess of double-talk and distortions. This really isn’t surprising; there is little doubt that the White House and State Department made the veto decision based not on a sober analysis of what is best for Israel or the Palestinians or for US interests in the Middle East.

No, this decision was made because of the massive congressional pressure that was brought to bear on this question. And, in turn, that congressional pressure came at the behest of AIPAC. That’s why the explanation sounds so thin, why it is based on tired clichés that we’ve heard for years and have long since been exposed as threadbare. And I say this as one who is not a subscriber to the Israel Lobby theory, who has, in fact, written extensively to the contrary. But in those writings, I never tried to deny that the Lobby has enormous power in Congress, and this is a case where that is very effective.

Let’s consider Rice’s explanation before we look at the ramifications of this decision, which I will do in part II of this piece. Rice said:

Our opposition to the resolution before this Council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity. On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.

The proposed UNSC resolution would have reaffirmed that all Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are illegal. Indeed, this is the US’ official policy, as affirmed in an April 21, 1978 State Department legal opinion, which has never been revised or reversed: “While Israel may undertake, in the occupied territories, actions necessary to meet its military needs and to provide for orderly government during the occupation, for the reasons indicated above the establishment of the civilian settlements in those territories is inconsistent with international law.”(my emphasis added) Reading more excerpts from this opinion is well worth your while.

There is no mention of illegality in Rice’s speech at all. Nor was there any such mention in the US’ proposed UNSC Presidential Statement about settlements. That’s precisely why the US “offer” was bogus—such a statement would have been a retreat by the UNSC from the position it has always held, that all settlements are illegal. It would, instead, adopt the United States’ diplomatic language that has held since the Reagan Administration. But even that language is not official US policy, as the State Department opinion is. Still, the constant blurring of this point since Reagan makes a difference, and it’s one Obama has now tried to spread to the Security Council. Fortunately, he failed.

The US consistently refers only to “ongoing settlement activity” in order to accommodate the two-state solution which would certainly leave some settlements standing, which ones being a matter for negotiation and bridging proposals. There has always been some pragmatism in that, given the international consensus on a two-state solution and the general acceptance by the international community (though not necessarily the Palestinian people) that some adjustment of borders would be necessary.

But this has worn thin by now. It is an open question whether the two-state solution is even possible, especially now that we have seen, in the Palestine Papers, just how far the Palestinian negotiators were willing to go, how the Palestinian people have reacted to such offers and, most crucially, how even this was not acceptable to Israel, certainly not to its current government, which refused to continue negotiations from the point of that offer.

This American formulation also sidesteps the bottom line on Israeli settlement expansion—that its very illegality is the reason to stop, on top of the fact that, by definition, it is changing facts on the ground. By casting it in terms of “ongoing activity,” the US implies that Israel has the right to retain some settlements. That may be a reality, given the politics and power dynamics, but it represents a major Palestinian concession even if the Palestinians receive compensation. If that much is not even acknowledged, how can the Palestinians expect any of their concerns to be reasonably addressed?

Rice brings out a tired cliché here:

the only way to reach that common goal is through direct negotiations between the parties…

This has never been a sensible formulation, and it’s precisely why an outside party, applying real pressure, has always been needed. The difference in power between Israel and the Palestinians is just too great for bilateral negotiations to work. Moreover, as the years have progressed, the impetus for major compromise has grown for the Palestinians, but has shrunk dramatically for Israel.

Israel has not been in a war against a power that posed a substantial threat to it since 1973. In more recent years, the threat of terrorism has also dropped dramatically, obviously a most welcome development. But, as Israel has continued to prosper, even joining the OECD last year, and as its people have enjoyed more security than they’ve known in a century of conflict, the need to compromise, to take risks for peace has grown dimmer. Meanwhile, the occupation has tightened, Palestinian standard of living, never high, has dropped dramatically since the signing of the Oslo Accords, and Palestinians have watched helplessly as Israeli settlements have usurped more and more land and crept across Jerusalem in order to forestall compromise there as well.

That’s why outside intervention is needed. And it has become clear that the US cannot be that outside party. We’re coming up on two decades of not just failure on America’s part, but our active involvement in the degeneration of the situation on the ground. The peace process is dead, and if there is any hope to salvage a solution, whatever the form, it lies in abandoning techniques that have been such a disaster. Rice again:

While we agree with our fellow Council members–and indeed, with the wider world–about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. We therefore regrettably have opposed this draft resolution.

This is simply absurd. The resolution would not have “attempted to resolve” anything. Indeed, it called for the resumption of negotiations. But it is precisely the role of the Security Council to insist that international law be followed. This is nothing more than the US running interference for Israel at a deep cost to its own international standing. As Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Leah Whitson put it, “President Obama wants to tell the Arab world in his speeches that he opposes settlements, but he won’t let the Security Council tell Israel to stop them in a legally binding way.”

A Palestinian filmmaker at whose film I was a panel speaker, was asked if he thought Israel was an apartheid state. His answer was very wise, I thought. He said that if you look at a two-state solution, then no, it is military occupation and, though brutal, it is not apartheid. If you are looking at the West Bank, Gaza and Israel as a single state, then it must be apartheid.

Israel is working overtime to ensure that there cannot be two states. And Obama, despite his rhetoric to the contrary, is doing a hell of a job in helping them down that one-state, apartheid path.

In Part II, we’ll look at the meaning of the veto.