The United Nations Security Council is expected to vote, possibly this month, on a resolution reaffirming that Israel’s 150 settlements in the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem “are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
One would reasonably expect the Obama Administration to support this resolution as the president himself “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” as stated in his June 2009 address in Cairo to the Muslim world.
But instead, the Obama Administration is threatening to use its veto in the Security Council once again to protect Israel from abiding by international law. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “New York is not the place to resolve the longstanding conflict and outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians.”
The US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation has launched a petition drive to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice in which U.S. citizens beg to differ with this assessment. The petition argues that “As the Obama Administration appears to be supporting human rights in Tunisia and Egypt and their citizens’ demands for freedom, the United States will lose credibility if it vetoes a UN resolution that supports those same rights for Palestinians.”
The US Campaign is more than three-quarters toward its goal of 10,000 signatures, which, if reached before the vote, will be hand-delivered to the U.S. Mission to the UN. Signatures can be added to the petition here.
If the Obama Administration were to veto this Security Council resolution, then it would represent a nadir in its Israel/Palestine policymaking and a complete climb down from its initial approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
President Obama—like all presidents since Jimmy Carter—have configured their policies toward Israel’s settlements within the parameters of a 1978 State Department legal memo that concluded they are “inconsistent with international law.” Presidents have differed in the degree to which they have tolerated or tacitly supported Israel’s ongoing settlement construction, yet the State Department’s basic premise that they are illegal is still official U.S. policy.
Upon assuming office, the Obama Administration, rather unexpectedly, offered up unrelenting criticism of Israel’s ongoing settlement construction and virtually demanded its halt as a precondition to set the right tone for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In May 2009, Clinton made clear that Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, no ‘natural growth’ exceptions.”
However, faced with Israel’s intransigence and unwilling to turn up the pressure against it by cutting military aid, Obama’s early principled position on Israeli settlements foundered. The beginning of his climb down was evident during the September 2009 UN General Assembly meeting when the president declared, “Simply put it is past time to talk about starting negotiations—it is time to move forward” with or without Israel freezing settlement construction.
As recently revealed in the Palestine Papers, Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell and his team of negotiators thereafter began a crude and ignominious effort to arm-twist Palestinian negotiators into resuming negotiations on the basis of a transparently flawed partial Israeli settlement “moratorium.”
In September 2009, David Hale, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, laid out to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat the Obama Administration’s new take-it-or-leave-it approach. Meeting minutes cite Hale as stating, “Our reaction is that obviously it is no surprise you are unhappy if the settlement package has imperfections (in this case [East] Jerusalem)—but if you want a perfect settlements package you just won’t get it. Even if partial, this package will be meaningful, it will restrain the activity—there will be less of it. Otherwise we can all just go home.”
Mitchell, in October 2009, explained that Israel would never agree to a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem. According to the minutes, “the Israelis will not go for it. He [Mitchell] said you have to deal with the world as it is, not as you would like it—for that reason the best he can get is ‘restraint.'”
Another year ensued before Palestinian negotiators were brow-beaten into returning to the negotiating table as Israel continued to colonize land designated for a future Palestinian state under the guise of its partial “moratorium.” Direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, convened under White House auspices amidst much fanfare in September 2010, broke down less than a month later after Israel refused to extend even its sham “moratorium.”
Ironically, Mitchell himself acknowledged the Obama Administration’s self-defeating approach to Israel’s settlements. According to meeting minutes from the Palestine Papers, he recognized “that an Israeli renewal of activity after the initial [‘moratorium’] period would spell the end of negotiations…He said the Palestinians may be assuming the worst, which may be justified given the history, but we don’t know what things will be like in 12 months.” Unfortunately, now it is obvious that Palestinians were right to expect the worst in bad faith negotiations by Israel.
After negotiations broke down, the Obama Administration tried bribing Israel into extending the “moratorium” in exchange for additional F-35 fighter jets and promised diplomatic support in the UN, but to no avail. Bereft of a strategy to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace, the United States is now trying to maintain its exclusive leadership of the failed “peace process” by undermining Palestinian efforts to bring their case directly to the international community.
Its absurd threat to veto the upcoming Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlements demonstrates U.S. contempt for international law and its inability to be a credible “honest broker” for Israeli-Palestinian peace. U.S. citizens should demand better from our country’s diplomacy.
Josh Ruebner is the National Advocacy Director of the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, a national coalition of nearly 350 organizations working to change U.S. policy toward Israel/Palestine to support human rights, international law, and equality. He is a former Analyst in Middle East Affairs at Congressional Research Service.