Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses the US abstention from last Friday's the UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements; Netanyahu’s reaction to the abstention: calling Israel’s ambassadors home, dressing down the ambassadors of Security Council members, cancelling meetings with heads of state like the UK’s PM May and Ukraine’s PM Groysman, and suspending a variety of international aid and cooperation programs as well as coordination meetings with the Palestinian Authority; the government of Israel's argument that this resolution renders new two-state solution negotiations less likely because it encourages the Palestinians to adhere to the international route of BDS, UN resolutions and appeals to international courts; whether he would have preferred to see a different Security Council resolution; and if 2334 could contribute ammunition to Palestinian attempts to confront Israel at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Q. Last Friday, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning the settlements. The US abstained. What is all the ruckus about? What’s new here?
A. What is new is that this is the first time in eight years that the Obama administration has allowed such a
resolution to pass and that it is a relatively balanced resolution, condemning Palestinian incitement as well.
Further, Israel’s government is so heavily influenced by right-wing pro-settler messianic fervor, and PM Netanyahu
has been so convinced that he is winning over the world to his version of reality--that he was surprised.
What is also new is the backdrop to the US abstention. Netanyahu, in his desperate efforts to avoid alienating his extreme right supporters over the fate of the Amona outpost, has embarked upon a legislative effort, the “regulation bill”, to legalize retroactively the expropriation by settlers of privately-owned Palestinian land in the West Bank. In an interview Monday night on Israel’s Channel 22 news, US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes singled out this step as the specific reason for Obama’s decision not to thwart UNSCR 2334. Rhodes reminded Israelis that the administration had repeatedly threatened to take action if the Amona legislation was allowed to proceed. The administration correctly understood that the regulation bill would be a major step, after 50 years of occupation, toward annexation of West Bank territories.
What is not new is that not a single country represented on the Security Council accepts the Netanyahu view that the territories beyond the 1967 green line are “liberated” rather than occupied. Not a single country buys the Israeli “hasbara” line that Israel has as much right to build in East Jerusalem (“its capital”) as France has to build in Paris. Not a single country considers the settlements or even Israel’s sovereign presence in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter legal. Here the reader should bear in mind that most Israelis, born since 1967, find these hard truths mystifying; they have been educated in accordance with a very different curriculum regarding their right to the historic biblical homeland in Judea and Samaria.
Nor is it unprecedented for a US administration not to veto a Security Council resolution critical of Israel: Johnson (7 resolutions), Nixon (15), Ford (2), Carter (14), Reagan (21), Bush 41 (9), Clinton (3), Bush 43 (6). Together, they make Obama look like the pro-Israel president he really has been.
Q. How do you explain Netanyahu’s reaction: calling Israel’s ambassadors home, dressing down the ambassadors of Security Council members, cancelling meetings with heads of state like the UK’s PM May and Ukraine’s PM Groysman, and suspending a variety of international aid and cooperation programs as well as coordination meetings with the Palestinian Authority?
A. Israel appears to be cutting off its nose to spite its face. The Security Council resolution portrayed it as
isolated internationally; in response it is isolating itself even more. I would speculate--and I emphasize,
speculate--that the explanation lies on three levels: emotional, tactical and strategic.
Emotionally, Netanyahu was humiliated by the UN move and particularly by the US role in it. After all, he claims to be an expert on America. All his clever efforts to prevent 2334--by persuading Egypt’s President Sisi to withdraw the original Egyptian resolution, by asking Russia’s Putin to veto it, by asking Trump to pressure Obama and/or Putin--failed.
Note that Israel went so far as to absent itself from a UN General Assembly vote last Wednesday to investigate war crimes in Syria in the presumed hope of buying a Russian veto two days later, thereby putting Israel in a category with countries like Ruanda, Eritrea and Libya that have something to fear from such investigations. Note that Israel’s appeal to Trump was a direct affront to Obama. Note also that Sisi actually bowed to Netanyahu’s will and withdrew his resolution--an interesting commentary on the solidity of Egyptian-Israeli strategic relations these days--but that ultimately Egypt too voted for 2334.
Nor can Netanyahu complain if there was a personal element in Obama’s decision not to veto 2334. Netanyahu repeatedly humiliated the president of the United States, starting from their first Oval Office encounter in front of the cameras when the prime minister shamelessly lectured the president--who confined his response to negative body language--and through Netanyahu’s March 3, 2015 appeal to Congress to thwart Obama’s Iran nuclear deal. From this standpoint, 2334 was the very least that Netanyahu had coming to him.
Tactically, Netanyahu apparently understands that the usual knee-jerk “appropriate Zionist response” reaction by the messianic right would isolate Israel and anger the international community even more. Netanyahu’s nemesis on the right, Education Minister Naftali Bennet of the Jewish Home Party, immediately advocated annexing Area C (60 percent) of the West Bank. Others demanded more settlement expansion. Thus it is conceivable that by dressing down ambassadors, recalling a few (from Wellington but not, notably, from Paris or London) and cancelling high level meetings, Netanyahu hopes to placate his own dominant right wing at a relatively low cost that few will remember by January 20 when Donald Trump moves into the White House.
Q. And at the strategic level?
A. That’s where Trump comes in. On the one hand, why waste ammunition on anger at Obama when the Trump
administration with its promise of recognition of united Jerusalem and support for settlements is around the
corner? On the other hand, does the UN vote mean that Trump will be Israel’s only friend?
In recent months--e.g., at his UN Security Council speech last fall--Netanyahu has boasted that his efforts at international cooperation against Islamist terrorism have reaped dividends in terms of Israel’s global relations to the point that it would soon be impossible to muster a Security Council majority against it. The prime minister’s highly publicized visits to meet with six East African leaders last July, his Jerusalem summit with the leaders of Cyprus and Greece in early December and his subsequent visits to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan all were designed to send this message. Netanyahu has even persuaded his government that he needs his own costly “air force one” prime ministerial plane to facilitate the growing number of trips where he delivers Israel’s new global clout.
Why, then, did everyone vote against him last Friday? This requires some contemplation. Of course, as US Ambassador Samantha Power herself acknowledged last Friday, the UN is inordinately biased against Israel. But does that mean that Israel’s response should create yet new “faits accomplis” in the West Bank? The settler lobby would for the time being have to suffice with a few hundred new housing units in Greater Jerusalem as an expression of Israeli defiance of 2334. On the diplomatic and Palestinian Authority fronts it will be business as usual within weeks. Indeed, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas just received a boost from the UN that Israel will not be able to ignore by disparaging him as a weak, lame-duck leader.
Whether Netanyahu will now draw any new conclusions regarding the efficacy of his regional and international strategies is of course the most important question. I doubt it.
Q. The government of Israel argues that this resolution renders new two-state solution negotiations less likely because it encourages the Palestinians to adhere to the international route of BDS, UN resolutions and appeals to international courts.
A. I agree that condemning the settlements and condemning Palestinian incitement will not move us closer to negotiations. But, Netanyahu’s protests notwithstanding, no one can argue that negotiations were a likely option prior to Friday. We have not witnessed serious negotiations since 2008, when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas walked away from the final status offer of lame-duck PM Ehud Olmert. Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu has since then evinced any capacity to make the concessions needed to give meaningful talks a chance. Nor did Secretary of State Kerry, in his abortive 2013-2014 attempt to revive the process, demonstrate cognizance of this depressing reality.
Q. Would you have preferred to see a different Security Council resolution?
A. Yes. Rather than focus on the settlements, which are only one of many issues thwarting progress, I would have
liked to see Obama and Kerry present a “new 242”, an attempt to define the necessary parameters of any two-state
solution in a balanced manner that would introduce internationally-mandated guidelines for the future and would
emphasize the need for Israel to remain Jewish and democratic--something Obama and Kerry frequently do but that was
absent from 2334.
Here we recall that the original 242, approved by the Security Council in 1967 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, did not deal with the Palestinian issue. On the other hand, the “territories for peace” guidelines it laid down for Israel-Arab peace were eventually, over time, embraced by Israel and the Arab world and created the framework for Israel-Egypt and Israel-Jordan peace treaties. A 242 for Israelis and Palestinians would have to comprise elements that both sides would initially find hard to swallow, but that over time they might have to acquiesce in, just as Israel and Egypt did ten years after the original 242 was ratified.
From this standpoint, 2334 does not constitute a powerful legacy on the Palestinian issue for the Obama presidency. Even the Clinton parameters of January 2001 are more memorable. We are told that Kerry plans to make a “legacy” speech at the upcoming Paris conference on January 15. We’ll have to wait and see.
All in all Obama, sadly and for all his good intentions, does not leave a promising Middle East legacy: from the Israel-Palestine conflict to his handling of the Arab revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Syria. Only the Iran nuclear deal stands out positively--at least until Trump takes office.
Q. Can’t 2334 contribute ammunition to Palestinian attempts to confront Israel at the International Criminal Court at The Hague?
A. In theory, yes. From herein, every new settler trailer home in the West Bank will be reported quarterly to the
Security Council. The campaign to boycott the settlements will gather steam--not that this will have any great
effect on either Israel or the settlements. More significantly, UNSCR 2334 could conceivably encourage the
prosecution at The Hague to move ahead from its current preliminary examination of the settlements to the
“investigation” stage. This is what the current Palestinian “internationalization” campaign is aiming for. In
theory, then, at some point in time Israeli officials could be subpoenaed.
But this is legally unexplored territory. Israel could choose to ignore the court, or make its case there for the legality of the occupation and the settlements, or argue that 2334 is declaratory and not mandatory, or counter-charge the Palestinians for incitement and terrorism. All this would take years. No outcome is guaranteed. The Trump administration could act to withhold US funding, which is considerable, for international institutions that pursue Israel. One unpleasant outcome could be greater Israeli dependency on the United States and less strategic cooperation on the part of Arab and other countries that share Israel’s concerns regarding militant Islam, whether of the ISIS or the Iranian variety.
But as we saw last Friday, those countries in any case abandoned Israel and opted for the Palestinian case when the chips were down. Meanwhile, defiance of 2334 propels us further down the road toward an ugly and violent one-state reality.