In a way, Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama deserve each other. Both promised great things. Both proved themselves masters of their respective political spheres. And yet both have contributed, since 2009, to a chronic deterioration in US-Israel relations and the wider Middle East meltdown. This process of polarisation and mutual alienation culminated last Friday with Obama’s active connivance in the passing of a landmark UN security council resolution. The resolution condemned all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory as a “flagrant violation” of international law that imperilled a future two-state peace.
Amid talk of betrayal, the Israeli response, personally orchestrated by Prime Minister Netanyahu, has been swift and furious. Ambassadors from the 14 countries that backed resolution 2334 were carpeted at the foreign ministry on Christmas Day. Israel has withdrawn its ambassadors from two of the countries concerned, New Zealand and Senegal, and cut aid assistance to the latter. Planned diplomatic exchanges have been cancelled, future Israeli cooperation with UN agencies placed under urgent review, and civilian coordination with the Palestinian Authority suspended. “We will do all it takes so Israel emerges unscathed from this shameful decision,” Netanyahu said.
If he really believes settlements undermine peace, why abstain? Why not go the whole hog and condemn them?
In a sense, these are symbolic actions in response to a symbolic vote. Resolution 2334 is unenforceable. Nobody, least of all the Americans, will attempt to evict the 430,000 Jewish settlers currently living in the West Bank or the 200,000 in east Jerusalem. Nobody can force Israel to embrace John Kerry’s recycled ideas about a two-state solution, although the US secretary of state is expected to spell them out one more time before he leaves office next month. Resolution 2334 joins UN resolutions 242 (1967) and 338 (1973) in the theoretical, consistently bypassed legal canon of the Israel-Palestine issue. It says what should happen. It does not say how.
Yet for all that, the US abstention and UN vote are not lacking in significance. Netanyahu’s smug suggestion that he need only wait for the advent of a Donald Trump presidency is misleading. It is likely Trump will give him a more sympathetic hearing. He may well move the US embassy to Jerusalem – a gratuitously inflammatory gesture.
The personal chemistry between Trump and Netanyahu will be vastly different; insecurity, aggression and paranoia are their shared characteristics. But Trump’s vain, vague boast that he could be the one to “solve” the Israel-Palestine conflict is as insubstantial as his many other foreign policy pledges. And a Trump administration cannot simply reverse the stated will of the UN security council – backed in this case by permanent members China, Russia, France and Britain – any more than it can unilaterally scrap last year’s multinational nuclear deal with Iran.
It is likely the resolution will accelerate existing moves to prosecute Israel at the international criminal court. By specifically instructing UN members to “distinguish between the territory of the state of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967”, it may also encourage new boycotts and sanctions. But more than that, the UN vote has highlighted the extraordinary extent of Israel’s international isolation under Netanyahu. Even he cannot persuasively dismiss the unanimous opinion of countries as diverse as Japan, Ukraine, Malaysia, Venezuela, Angola and Spain. It takes a lot to make an enemy of New Zealand, but Netanyahu has managed it.
This was the world telling Netanyahu, with one voice, that the expanded settlement policy he has encouraged and justified is wrong – wrong legally, wrong morally, wrong politically, and wrong in terms of Israel’s future peace and security. The odd thing is, he knows this. In 2009, Netanyahu, newly re-elected, described his “vision” of a historic peace, “of two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighbourly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbour’s security and existence”. Although he appeared to renege during last year’s election campaign, Netanyahu still claims to support a two-state solution. Now the international community’s message is unequivocal: you were right in 2009. So stop undermining the prospect of peace. Honour your promise.
US abstention allows UN to demand end to Israeli settlements
Obama has not been much help. He, too, made a big speech in 2009, shortly after taking office, pledging a “new beginning” for the Middle East. But Obama’s so-say inspirational Cairo performance turned out to be the prelude not to transformational progress, but to regional disintegration and growing American detachment. The US withdrawal from Iraq left a political vacuum in Baghdad that Iran and its Shia allies filled. Then, in partial reaction, came the Sunni jihadists of Islamic State. The Arab spring revolts of 2011 left Washington nonplussed. In Egypt it fretted over the toppling of Hosni Mubarak and welcomed his eventual replacement by another pro-American military dictator. In Syria, Obama prematurely anticipated the demise of Bashar al-Assad, only to back away when the going got tough, letting in the Russians and the Iranians (again) and squandering US leverage.
Obama never seemed to grasp the implausibility of publicly pressurising the risk-averse Netanyahu into peace talks with the Palestinians, even as Israel’s immediate neighbours fell prey to civil disorder and Islamist insurrection. As the US retreated, physically and diplomatically, Hezbollah (Iran’s and Hamas’s Lebanese ally), advanced. Little wonder, in this chaotic context, that the Obama-Kerry “comprehensive plan” for peace ran into the sand in 2014. Little wonder, perhaps, that Israelis now eye the Golan Heights, their disputed land border with Syria, with growing apprehension as Assad’s forces are advancing.
Add in Libya and Yemen, for example, and Obama’s Middle East legacy is not one to be proud of. Like Netanyahu, 2009 promise went unfulfilled. And it is fitting that his final days in office should be marked by petulance and impotence. Obama did not push nearly hard enough for peace when the regional climate might have allowed it. In 2011, he vetoed a similar UN resolution, arguing US-brokered talks would find a way forward. Obama, senior partner in a dysfunctional relationship, allowed Netanyahu to beard him repeatedly, not least in the latter’s self-justificatory 2015 address to Congress. Cautious to the end, even Obama’s UN demarche on Friday was half-hearted. If he really believes settlements are undermining peace, why abstain? Why not go the whole hog and vote to condemn them? And why wait seven years?
What happens next, in the dawning Trump era, is deeply worrying. A continuing, polarising stalemate over Palestinian statehood looks probable. So, too, do expanding settlements on occupied land and possibly annexations, as mooted by Netanyahu’s rightwing allies. How long before the Palestinian response grows violent once again? And how long before Netanyahu induces an impulsive, know-nothing Trump to take joint action against the bigger target, Iran?