As the presidential election ceases to be a contest, more and more Middle East watchers are looking to the day after, and the issue of whether President Obama will do anything to try and fix American policy in Palestine in his final months in office and thereby try and fix his legacy. Whatever Obama’s instincts, the pressure against action has begun from the very precinct that managed to stymie him over the last 7-1/2 years, Israel and its lobby. And there is counter-pressure, from the center-left, some of whom still pray for a two-state solution.
Let’s look at the landscape. Haaretz reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lobbied Secretary of State John Kerry on this issue in a Saturday night phone call. Don’t dare to lift a finger. Barak Ravid reported yesterday:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that Israel would expect that the administration of President Barack Obama will not carry out a shift in policy and will not promote or support a United Nations Security Council resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian issue during the period following the U.S. presidential election until Obama leaves office, Haaretz has learned. Netanyahu made the comments in a telephone conversation with Kerry on Saturday night…
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office and at the Foreign Ministry are concerned that, following the American presidential elections but prior to the end of his term in the White House, Obama could attempt to promote steps to enshrine his presidential legacy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The assessment in Jerusalem is that such a process could take the form of a speech in which the U.S. president would spell out his vision for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, support for a Security Council resolution regarding West Bank Jewish settlements or even the promotion of a Security Council resolution that would define the principles for a solution to the core issues of the conflict, such as the borders of a Palestinian state or the future of Jerusalem.
Israel faces a unique window of danger from Nov. 9 to Jan. 20: What might President Obama do in his final days in office to slam the Jewish state?
Start with Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent flat refusal to promise a US veto on any upcoming anti-Israel resolution in the UN Security Council.
Which side is the Post on?
On the other side is James Zogby. The head of the Arab American Institute posted a piece called “Strong Words Must Be Followed by Strong Action,” in which he marveled at the Obama administration’s upset over the newest Israeli settlement, in light of the $38 billion aid package it just signed with Israel, but laid down the legacy challenge. Obama can salvage his legacy in the Middle East by allowing the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the settlements illegal and imposing sanctions, and the White House should follow up by not blocking the Arabs’ path to the International Criminal Court over the illegal colonies. A long excerpt:
While fully understanding that the Administration is upset, I admit to also being puzzled. Netanyahu has been playing them for almost eight years, repeatedly sticking his finger in their eye and getting away with it. In fact, it is a running joke, that Netanyahu, either before or after high level US visits, will defiantly announce new settlement plans, boasting that he knows how to control America.
On three occasions, Netanyahu used invitations to address the US Congress in an effort to stymie the goals of the President—succeeding twice. In the one instance where he lost (on the Iran deal), he ended up being rewarded with the $38 billion arms agreement…
As long as the US allows this pattern to continue, the spoiled child will take advantage of the situation—taunting, acting out, and getting his way.
This Administration, like those before it, will argue that their hands are tied—that Congress will undercut them or overrule them. But in the last three months of this Administration, President Obama has an opportunity to set things right. He can, for example, restate the 1970’s State Department finding (which has never been overturned) that all settlement activity is illegal. He can allow the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution declaring the illegality of settlements and imposing international sanctions against Israel for its violations of international law. And he can refuse to block an Arab effort to refer the issue to the International Criminal Court.
Israel will throw a tantrum (as spoiled children are wont to do). And Israel’s lobby will, no doubt, spring into action demanding that Congress repudiate the Administration’s effort. But the matter will be out of their hands and in the court of international community. A strong signal will be sent to Israel, that they cannot continue their oppression of Palestinians and their creeping annexation of the occupied territories. And it will empower and embolden Israeli and Palestinian peace forces.
Finally, such a demonstration of decisiveness will help to salvage President Obama’s legacy in the Middle East. It will provide him with the opportunity to be remembered as the President who provided unprecedented security assistance for Israel, while at the same time putting his foot down and making that state’s rogue leadership face the international consequences for their self-destructive behavior.
The liberal Zionist group J Street has also called for “strong” action. J Street also endorses a Security Council resolution. Though not as firmly as Zogby:
There are a number of steps that the US government can take to make clear that settlement expansion is unacceptable and runs counter to shared American and Israeli interests and values. These steps could include enforcing existing US customs regulations which require that West Bank products not be labeled as “Made in Israel;” reviewing whether tax-deductible treatment for donations to NGOs that advance settlement expansion meet US eligibility requirements; and pursuing or not vetoing a balanced Security Council resolution at the United Nations.
Without such steps, we can only expect to see this same sad scenario playing out again and again in the months ahead.
J Street is at odds here with its big brother in the lobby, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Remember that 88 senators, including good liberals whom J Street endorses, such as Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, signed a letter circulated by AIPAC telling the president to Do Nothing to restrict Israel in the last days of his administration.
We urge you to… make it clear that you will veto any one sided UNSC [UN Security Council] resolution that may be offered in the coming months.
Gideon Levy said at the Lannan Foundation a week ago that if you tried to get 88 senators to sign a resolution saying, “Today is Wednesday, will you get 88 signatures? I’m not sure. Let me doubt it. And when it comes to Israel, you get it. Again and again. And that’s the power of AIPAC.”
Finally, there is evidence that the discourse is beginning to shift in recognition of the reality of 50 years of occupation. Reporters at the State Department last week asked two $64 questions: whether Israel doesn’t in fact seek an undemocratic Jewish state with sovereignty over Palestine; and whether, given this reality, the United States should not support equal rights for Palestinians in that one state. You will see that State spox John Kirby dodges both questions.
MATT LEE of AP: Do you think that they’re doing that because what they want is an undemocratic Jewish state that perpetually occupies Palestinian territory?… I’m just wondering if you think that the Israeli Government doesn’t see its future as being Jewish and democratic at the same time, and do you – does the Administration believe that the Israeli Government wants to perpetually occupy land that was right now claimed by the Palestinians?
KIRBY: We can only go by their assertions. Their assertions are that they want a two-state solution, but their actions are going in the other direction…
LEE: But do you think that they’re doing that intentionally?
KIRBY: I’m not able to characterize their wants and their desires. … I’ve got to get going.
SAID ARIKAT [al Quds daily]: Would the United States support equal rights for the Palestinians and a one-state situation?
KIRBY: I’m not going to get into a hypothetical situation, Said. What we continue to support is a two-state solution.
Mairav Zonszein at the Nation is more explicit about this reality. In a piece titled, Where Is Obama’s Red Line on Israel, she urges Obama to take a stand, but emphasizes that it’s one, undemocratic state right now.
Without such a marker, US foreign policy on this question is derelict and meaningless.
Many policy people, both Israelis and Americans, make the argument that any pressure on Israel will only move it further to the right. This may be true. But no pressure at all under eight years of Obama has already moved Israel further to the right than it has ever been…
Since June 5, 1967, the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea has been ruled by one regime, one state apparatus with two distinct governing practices, one for Jews and one for Palestinians. That doesn’t necessarily mean a two-state solution is no longer viable or desirable. But it does mean that in reality, Israelis have made their choice. So the question is whether the United States can face that reality, and what, if anything, is it prepared to do about it?