On 23 December 2016, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2334 unanimously, US abstaining. The Resolution reaffirmed “that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East [and] Calls once more upon Israel, as the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, to rescind its previous measures and to desist from taking any action which would result in changing the legal status and geographical nature and materially affecting the demographic composition of the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, and, in particular, not to transfer parts of its own civilian population into the occupied Arab territories.”
Reaffirmed. A matter of some import.
It is important to recognize that 2334 is nothing new. The quote above is from UNSC Resolution 446, 12 March 1979, reiterated in essence in Resolution 2334. Resolution 446 passed 12-0 with the US abstaining, joined by the UK and Norway. Several resolutions followed reaffirming 446. One of particular interest a year later was even stronger than 446-2334, calling on Israel “to dismantle the existing settlements” (UNSC Resolution 465, March 1980), this time passed unanimously, no abstentions.
The Government of Israel did not have to wait for the UN Security Council (and more recently, the World Court) to learn that its settlements are in gross violation of international law. In September 1967, only weeks after Israel’s conquest of the occupied territories, in a Top Secret document the government was informed by the Legal Adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the distinguished international lawyer Theodor Meron, that “civilian settlement in the administered territories [Israel’s term for the occupied territories] contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” Meron explained further that the prohibition against transfer of settlers to the occupied territories “is categorical and not conditional upon the motives for the transfer or its objectives. Its purpose is to prevent settlement in occupied territory of citizens of the occupying state.” Meron therefore advised that “If it is decided to go ahead with Jewish settlement in the administered territories, it seems to me vital, therefore, that settlement is carried out by military and not civilian entities. It is also important, in my view, that such settlement is in the framework of camps and is, on the face of it, of a temporary rather than permanent nature.”
Meron’s advice was followed. Settlement has often been disguised by the subterfuge suggested, the “temporary military entities” turning out later to be civilian settlements. The device of military settlement also has the advantage of providing a means to expel Palestinians from their lands on the pretext that a military zone is being established. Deceit was scrupulously planned, beginning as soon as Meron’s authoritative report was delivered to the government. As documented by Israeli scholar Avi Raz, in September 1967, `on the day a second civilian settlement came into being in the West Bank, the government decided that “as a ‘cover’ for the purpose of [Israel’s] diplomatic campaign” the new settlements should be presented as army settlements and the settlers should be given the necessary instructions in case they were asked about the nature of their settlement. The Foreign Ministry directed Israel’s diplomatic missions to present the settlements in the occupied territories as military “strongpoints” and to emphasize their alleged security importance.’
Similar practices continue to the present, while “supporters of Israel” pretend not to see.
The Security Council orders in 1979-80 to dismantle existing settlements and to establish no new ones were followed at once by a rapid expansion of settlements by both of the major Israeli political blocs, Labor and Likud, always with lavish US material support.
The primary differences today are that the US is now alone against the whole world, and that it is a different world. Israel’s flagrant violations of Security Council orders, and of international law, are by now far more extreme than they were 35 years ago, and are arousing far greater condemnation in much of the world. The contents of Resolution 446-2334 are therefore taken more seriously. Hence the revealing reactions to 2334, and to Secretary of State John Kerry’s explanation of the US vote. In the Arab world, the reactions seem to have been muted: We’ve been here before. In Europe they were generally supportive. In the US and Israel, in contrast, coverage and commentary were extensive, and there was considerable hysteria. These are further indications of the increasing isolation of the US on the world stage. Under Obama, that is. Under Trump US isolation will likely increase further, and indeed already did, even before he took office.
Trump’s most significant step in advancing US isolation was on November 8, when he won two victories. The lesser victory was in the US, where he won the electoral vote (while losing the popular vote by close to 3 million; his victory was based on regressive features of the US political system). The greater victory was in Marrakech, Morocco, where some 200 nations were meeting to try to put some real content into the December 2015 Paris agreements on climate change, which were left as promises rather than the intended treaty because the Republican Congress would not accept binding commitments.
As the electoral votes came in on November 8, the Marrakech conference shifted from its substantive program to the question whether there could even be any meaningful action to deal with the ominous threat of environmental catastrophe now that the most powerful country in world history is calling quits. That was, surely, Trump’s greatest victory on November 8, one of truly momentous import. It also established US isolation on the most severe problem humans have ever faced in their short history on earth. The world rested its hopes for leadership in China, now that the Leader of the Free World declared that it will not only withdraw from the effort but, with Trump’s election, will move forcefully to accelerate the race to disaster.
An amazing spectacle, which passed with virtually no comment.
The fact that the US is now alone in rejecting the international consensus reaffirmed in UNSC 2334 is another sign of increasing US isolation.
Just why Obama chose abstention rather than veto is an open question: we do not have direct evidence. But there are some plausible guesses. There had been some ripples of surprise (and ridicule) after Obama’s February 2011 veto of a UNSC Resolution calling for implementation of official US policy, and he may have felt that it would be too much to repeat it if he is to salvage anything of his tattered legacy among sectors of the population that have some concern for international law and human rights. It is also worth remembering that among liberal Democrats, if not Congress, and particularly among the young, opinion about Israel-Palestine has been moving towards criticism of Israeli policies in recent years, so much so that “60% of Democrats support imposing sanctions or more serious action” in reaction to Israeli settlements, according to a December 2016 Brookings Institute poll. By now the core of support for Israeli policies in the US has shifted to the far right, including the evangelical base of the Republican Party. Perhaps these were factors in Obama’s decision.
The 2016 abstention aroused furor in Israel and in the US Congress as well, both Republicans and leading Democrats, including proposals to defund the UN in retaliation for the world’s crime. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced Obama for his “underhanded, anti-Israel” actions. His office accused Obama of “colluding” behind the scenes with this “gang-up” by the UNSC, producing particles of “evidence” that hardly rise to the level of sick humor. A senior Israeli official added that the abstention “revealed the true face of the Obama administration,” adding that “now we can understand what we have been dealing with for the past eight years.”
Reality is rather different. Obama has in fact broken all records in support for Israel, both diplomatic and financial. The reality is described accurately by Middle East specialist of the Financial Times David Gardner: “Mr Obama’s personal dealings with Mr Netanyahu may often have been poisonous, but he has been the most pro-Israel of presidents: the most prodigal with military aid and reliable in wielding the US veto at the Security Council… The election of Donald Trump has so far brought little more than turbo-frothed tweets to bear on this and other geopolitical knots. But the auguries are ominous. An irredentist government in Israel tilted towards the ultra-right is now joined by a national populist administration in Washington fire-breathing Islamophobia.”
Public commentary on Obama’s decision and Kerry’s justification was split. Supporters generally agreed with Thomas Friedman that “Israel is clearly now on a path toward absorbing the West Bank’s 2.8 million Palestinians….posing a demographic and democratic challenge.” In a New York Times review of the state of the two-state solution defended by Obama-Kerry (and UNSC 2334) and threatened with extinction by Israeli policies, Max Fisher asks “Are there other solutions?” He then turns to the possible alternatives, all “multiple versions of the so-called one-state solution” that poses the “demographic and democratic challenge” of too many Arabs – perhaps soon a majority – in a “Jewish and democratic state.”
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