Israel again faces world’s rejection of settlements


Ahead of the unknowns a Donald Trump administration will bring to American Middle East policy, President Barack Obama’s administration allowed a bracing reminder on Dec. 23 that the international community does not recognize the validity of Israel’s presence in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The U.S. abstention on the U.N. Security Council vote was hardly unprecedented, but neither was it entirely consistent with recent U.S. policy. The Obama administration did not quite endorse Resolution 2334, but its abstention ensured the resolution, reaffirming the illegality of Israeli settlements in lands captured by Israel in 1967, would be adopted. As one of the five permanent members of the 15-member council, the U.S. could have exercised its veto power. Instead, the resolution passed, 14-0.

For 24 years, the United States under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama insulated Israel from an international community that, since 1967, has sought to exact consequences for its continued presence in disputed lands. After the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, those three administrations considered the isolation of the Jewish state at the United Nations to be counterproductive to encouraging Israel to take bold steps for peace.

By 2004, George W. Bush had effectively recognized the large settlement blocs bordering 1967 Israel as “realities on the ground” and suggested that the Palestinians would be compensated for the territory with land swaps. Obama’s apparent message to the world is that incentives did not work in slowing settlement expansion. The carrot having wilted, the president reintroduced the stick.

Obama administration officials have said plainly that the expansion of settlements absent a peace process led to the decision to abstain. Samantha Power, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, in her explanation of the abstention, listed the considerations that made the administration hesitate to allow the resolution — chief among them the historic anti-Israel bias at the United Nations and Palestinian intransigence. But she also noted that since the Oslo Accords, the settler population has increased by 355,000.

As much as the language in the resolution has stirred cries of “unprecedented” in Israel and in some pro-Israel precincts in the United States, it is broadly consistent with resolutions that the United States allowed from 1967 at least through the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in January 1981.

The recent U.N. resolution reaffirmed “that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity,” and constituted a “flagrant violation” of international law. Resolution 465, passed in March 1980 under Carter with a U.S. vote in favor, determined that “all measures” that would change the physical or demographic character of the occupied lands, including Jerusalem, “have no legal validity” and are a “flagrant violation” of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It further called on countries to “distinguish” between Israel and the West Bank.

Under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the council did not explicitly reject settlements as illegal, but referred to earlier resolutions that did so while continuing to assail the occupation as untenable. 

The practical consequences of the resolution passed Dec. 23 seem limited. If there was an unprecedented element to the affair, it was in the response by Israel’s leadership and some in the American pro-Israel community. 

“The Obama administration carried out a disgraceful and anti-Israel trap at the United Nations,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the lighting of the first Chanukah candle.

Statements by mainstream pro-Israel groups were relatively temperate — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee called the abstention “particularly regrettable.” On the right, the responses were more unleashed.

“Obama’s an anti-Semitic Israel-hater sympathizing with radical Islamic terrorists,” said Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, in his first-ever tweet.

Netanyahu and his ambassador to Washington, D.C., Ron Dermer, said they were counting on the Trump administration to reverse course. Dermer said in multiple interviews he had evidence that the Obama administration did not simply abstain but colluded in framing the resolution, an accusation strongly denied by administration officials.

Israel is now looking ahead to a new American order. At the Chanukah ceremony, Netanyahu spoke of “our friends in the incoming administration” — David Friedman, Trump’s ambassador designate, is an active supporter of the settlement movement.

Will Trump usher in that era? His pronouncements after the resolution were relentlessly critical, promising in one tweet that “things will be different” at the U.N. after he assumes the presidency, and lamenting in another that the council’s action “will make it much harder to negotiate peace.” 

In total, the statements appeared to regret the passage of the resolution — but stopped well short of pledging to reverse its effects.

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