The last weeks of 2016 proved to be among of the most tumultuous periods in the history of the relationship between Israel and the United States. In many respects, this period marked a perfect storm of clashing policies and personalities that has been brewing over the eight years that Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have interacted disdainfully with each other.
As we now enter a new era, marked by post-factual distortion, it might be helpful to set down in place a number of propositions that have emerged from the recent turbulence:
The United Nations treats Israel badly: All one needs to do is read the first half of Samantha Power’s speech explaining the United States’ abstention from United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334. The American ambassador to the U.N. laid it out clearly: 18 resolutions were adopted against Israel in the General Assembly in September, and 12 resolutions in the U.N. Human Rights Council. Stunningly, this is more than all of the resolutions adopted against Syria, North Korea, Iran and South Sudan combined in 2016. Far from ignoring this, Ambassador Power reminded her audience of this bias and made clear that the United States is unequivocally opposed to it.
Israel’s occupation was and remains illegal: The fact that the United Nations acts unfairly toward Israel cannot erase a basic truth recognized by the entire world: Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War is illegal. The reasoning was made crystal clear already in September 1967 by Israeli Foreign Ministry legal adviser Theodor Meron, who is today a member of the International Court of Justice. At the request of then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Meron weighed in on a key clause (Article 49) in the Fourth Geneva Convention: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population.” According to Meron, the prohibition on settling civilian settlers in occupied territory was “categorical.” Notwithstanding this claim, every Israeli government has defied Meron’s judgment, which is upheld by the United States, as well as by all 14 members of the U.N. Security Council who voted in support of the resolution condemning settlements. And every American government since 1967 — including Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. — has consistently opposed the settlement enterprise. No amount of deflection, deception or delusion can get around this universally held view of the illegality of the occupation.
The occupation has sharply exacerbated the U.N.’s imbalance: The United Nations’ distorted focus on Israel should be called out and condemned, as Ambassador Power did. But two key factors must also be remembered. First, it is the United Nations that gave birth to Israel through General Assembly Resolution 181 from Nov. 29, 1947. And second, the United Nations’ obsessive focus on Israel has increased significantly since 1967. To give a brief statistical picture, there were 36 Security Council resolutions relating to Israel from 1948 and 1967, a good number of which dealt with both Israel and the Arab states in 1948-49. By contrast, there have been 190 Security Council resolutions since 1967, more than double the yearly rate than the earlier two decades (3.9 vs. 1.9 annually). This reminds us of a basic truth that many so-called Israel advocates tend to neglect: The United Nations’ bias has been fueled by the occupation. One cannot deny that anti-Semitism has been a causal factor in this bias, but neither can one credibly deny that the occupation has also been a prime causal factor.
John Kerry’s frustration was palpable and understandable: In his Dec. 28 speech, Secretary of State Kerry recalled his deep emotional ties to Israel. He went to great lengths to condemn Palestinian incitement and terrorism. But he also could not restrain his profound frustration over Israel’s continuous appropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements. He understands exactly where this is leading Israel: to a choice between a single democratic state of all its citizens or an apartheid state that systematically denies rights of citizenship to millions of subjects. He felt compelled to offer an unvarnished read of the situation, as he saw it. Sadly, Kerry’s bracing speech, rare for its candor in the annals of American diplomacy, was too little, too late.
The two–state era is over: In the flickering embers of the Oslo peace process lingered the hope of two states, Jewish and Palestinian, side-by-side in peace. This was the best of a bunch of less-than-optimal options. However, a mix of factors, chief among them Israel’s settlement project, has done severe damage and, in all likelihood, extinguished this dream. The settlers, it seems, have won the battle of the day not only by growing in number, but by making clear that they will not be removed en masse any time soon. Ultimately, they will lose the war, if their goal is to ensure that Israel remain a Jewish state on both sides of the Green Line. That vision is demographically and politically unsustainable and will unravel over the course of decades. Consequently, we must begin to engage now in serious thinking about alternatives to the two-state idea that respect the national rights of Jews and Arabs, as well as the rights of every citizen.
The Jews are bad at statecraft: As a historian, I find it hard to resist comparisons between the current age and ancient times, when the Jews last had sovereignty over the land. What this comparison yields is a sobering proposition. Whether owing to internal dissension (as in the Unified Kingdom of David and Solomon), intoxicated imitation of their one-time overlords (the Hasmoneans) or a clear preference for building ornate structures at the expense of caring for the people (Herod), Jews have exhibited precious little ability to conduct their sovereign political affairs with sagacity and skill. I am haunted by the proposition that the current crop of Jewish political leaders in Israel — in stark distinction to the founding generation of David Ben-Gurion — are acting not to secure Israel’s future but to undermine its capacity to survive. With apologies to Henry Kissinger, they seem to prove that Jews, over the long haul, are not very good at the art of statecraft.
David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish history at UCLA.