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The Left should stop bickering and support Obama's abstention

Everyone knew that abstention from the Security Council’s anti-settlement resolution was one of the more realistic options on a very limited menu. So why is the Left now up in arms?

U.S. Ambassador to the UN speaks following the Security Council's passing of a resolution on Israeli settlements, New York, December 23, 2016. (Screenshot from UN Web TV)

U.S. Ambassador to the UN speaks following the Security Council’s passing of a resolution on Israeli settlements, New York, December 23, 2016. (Screenshot from UN Web TV)

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power barely got the word “abstain” out of her mouth before the liberal left ripped into the decision with a thousand knives. Wait, what? The U.S. abstention allowed the Security Council to pass Resolution 2334 by 14-0. The statement calls on Israel to halt to settlement activity, viewed as a mortal threat to the two-state solution, the signature policy of the left in this conflict (and the center too). Both the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. swore their undying loyalty to ending the conflict through two states; anyone who supports this was supposed to celebrate.

But the more cynical than thou left had to find counterpoint criticism, well, just because. In response, I will summon the apt Hebrew phrase: Hevre, ma kara? You get what you want but it’s still not good enough?

For months, every specialized left-wing policy circuit has been rife with speculation — even obsession — with hope that Obama would do at least something on this issue on his way out. Everyone knew that abstention from an anti-settlement resolution was one of the more realistic options on a very limited menu. I never heard a single liberal left-winger argue against it.

Then overnight, with cyber-columns to fill, complaints sprung to life in the form of a few essentially flimsy arguments.

One is that for eight years, Obama was unable to prevent the expanding, multi-headed hydra of occupation or preserve the vanishing two-state solution. The abstention allowing the UNSC to pass a single resolution against settlements is too little too late — a mocking reminder that the outgoing president’s talk was bigger than his walk. This is the gist of Aluf Benn’s column in Haaretz. Apparently some critics would prefer that Obama to slink out of the room in shame rather than drive home a lasting statement. I can already recite the “biting” critique of these same people upbraiding Obama in an alternate universe for failing to take one final stance.

File photo of U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

File photo of U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Moshe Milner/GPO)

Another acrobatic analysis holds that the abstention will further embolden the right-wing argument, in which the whole world is against Israel. That’s a ringing endorsement of never doing anything. If a $38 billion aid package couldn’t buy a defensive shield against a single critical move by the Obama administration, nothing can. The fanatic Right spits out “anti-Israel” like an automatic pitcher against everything from ISIS to the IDF, whenever someone steps out of the Netanyahu line. No serious person should succumb to this cheap conflation. When the UN made a mistake, as I believe UNESCO did with relation to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif resolution, it should be called out. When the policy is correct – such as the UN Security Council members affirming their longtime opposition to settlements, which is also coincidentally U.S. policy, it should be supported, period.

Perhaps the most legitimate critique is that the resolution itself may be meaningless. No UN statement has ever stopped Israel’s juggernaut of an occupation; the Israeli government itself can barely budge a motley handful of caravans from a freezing, muddy hill in the West Bank.

This is a genuine question. Do rhetorical, declarative, or symbolic moves have any role left when the physical situation is crumbling and people’s lives are at stake? Did the U.S. just expend precious political capital on an empty declaration that won’t change a whit on the ground?

Though it may seem arbitrary, I believe that declarative politics still matter; especially one with so many layers of meaning. Here’s why:

First, the decision was a groundbreaking departure from one of the many deadlocked doors blocking any change of policy in this region: the infamous U.S. veto that defanged any UNSC pressure on Israel, often before the teeth could even be bared. No more — if Israel so desperately wants occupation via settlements, it is more on its own than ever.

Second, the decision is a smart slap down of Trump’s intervention, when the latter asked Obama to please veto the resolution, as if he had any idea what all this means. Trump now looks ridiculous, left in the dust, writing flaccid fist-shaking tweets that when he is president “things will be different.”

Third, Obama has flat-out rejected the illusion that Israel’s democracy inside the Green Line inoculates it from criticism against occupation. Netanyahu and his henchman can cry “only democracy in the Middle East” all they want (and Israel is still relatively democratic inside the Green Line, despite recent erosion and original flaws). But stakeholders are sick of the fiction that Green Line Israel is somehow separate from the settlements; that the West Bank, Gaza, or the four million Palestinian inhabitants Israel rules without rights or representation is somehow unrelated to Israel. The U.S. is tired of having its intelligence, or its eyesight, questioned.

The U.S. abstention and the resolution lays bare the Israeli government’s profound contradiction: Israel doesn’t get to settle the West Bank in the name of all of Israel, then cry that criticism of settlements is a de facto attack on all of Israel. Israel doesn’t get to rule Palestinians through a violent regime under martial law for 50 years, then point to Green Line democracy as proof that the settlements are legitimate. And most of all, Israel does not get to disconnect settlements from occupation: to date, settlements have played the role of “yated ne’eman”– the firm stake – pinning Israel’s army to the West Bank in perpetuity. Settlements alone are not the occupation, but they are at present its biggest symbol.

So if Israel is angry about a symbolic measure against settlements, there is only one way out: take physical steps to end the occupation.

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    1. Lewis from Afula

      The West Bank/Yesha was classified by the San Remo Treaty of 1922 as areas to be open to “close settlement of the Land by Jews”. The later UN plan of 1947 was REJECTED by the entire Arab League, thus made invalid. Jordan rejected its own claims to these lands in 1988. According to Article 80 of the UN, these lands must revert to the last League of Nations statue that was universally recognised at the time ie San Remo Treaty.

      In terms of international law, Israel is FULLY IN THE RIGHT in facilitating settlement of these areas with Jews. The 4th Geneva Convention cannot be applied to areas that the UN (or its preceeding organization) had specifically designated for “close settlement of the Land by Jews”

      Reply to Comment
    2. ‘Fraid not Lewis from A. UN resolution 181 had no enforcement power, as the issue was clearly strategic so fell not to the General Assembly but Security Council (Article 83). Even if the Arab States had agreed to 181 it still would have no standing without SC approval, although that approval I think likely for otherwise the SC would appear impotent. As the Independence War heated, the SC gave up trying to decide if it had the power to partition the area (I think it clearly did, as briefly noted below).

      Nonetheless, the UK had transferred its Mandate to the UN (Article 77 section 1[c]). UN Charter Chapter XII places Trust security issues in the hands of the Council, surely subsuming territory partition. Perhaps we can agree that the SC has completely ignored its responsibility and that, under Article 78, the SC has no authority on territory recognized as Israel at time of admission . As to San Remo and Balfour, you don’t want to go there as it puts the lie to IDF occupation policy, as there is no protection of civil rights for Palestinians therein. Further, the SC can alter security arrangements to satisfy the general conditions of the Trust (Article 83). If the Council sees the importation of population as a security threat, it may preclude such. San Remo says

      “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

      As noted, rights of the non-Jewish communities have been severely prejudiced over the last 50 years; and a national home for the Jewish people “in Palestine” does not imply “all of Palestine,” especially if non-Jewish rights are thereby prejudiced, as they have been. Moreover, Israel is said “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, making its extended imperative to the rump of Palestine unnecessary.

      I don’t think a Two State solution is any longer viable. But this does not change the language of San Remo with respect to the rump of Palestine which has suffered for the benefit of the established Jewish national homeland. The Security Council has never accepted full responsibility for this mess simply because it has neither the enforcement power nor will to do so. What we see in 2334 is an attempt to inch towards its original obligation knowing solution on the ground cannot be actualized; so it passed the buck to other entities which can now hold in international law that the settlements are illegal and do not enjoy, e.g., the rights of commerce internationally. Whether anyone actually so decides is another matter entirely.

      Reply to Comment
      • Lewis from Afula

        The UN cannot vote to reject its own Article 80 because Article 80 is a fundamental structural element of the UN. Article 80 says that San Remo vote is the last relevant vote that holds to date. What did San Remo say? It says Judea & Samaria are for close settlememt of Jews.

        All the Oil in the Persian Gulf cannot change this.

        Reply to Comment
        • No, Lewis. Section 1 of Article 80 reads in its entirety:

          “Except as may be agreed upon in individual trusteeship agreements, made under Articles 77, 79, and 81, placing each territory under the trusteeship system, and until such agreements have been concluded, nothing in this Chapter shall be construed in or of itself to alter in any manner the rights whatsoever of any states or any peoples or the terms of existing international instruments to which Members of the United Nations may respectively be parties.”

          At best, this says that UN member States retain what rights they have by international treaty, either when their citizens enter a trust territory or a State does so, as say when custodian; or that peoples retain rights bestowed on them. To the former, suppose the Trust custodian arrests a national of some State; that national is due, by Article 80, whatever protections exist between the signatories of the two States. To the latter, suppose land held in trust which is traversed by a nomadic people seasonally; this would be a traditional “right” of these people so, absent strong security concerns, the custodian would be expected to allow that seasonal use.

          I cannot find your use of “close” anywhere in the full text of San Remo, but perhaps I missed it. Nor is your use of “close,” purported to come from that treaty, well defined. Taking “close” to mean connections among Jews for a homeland, that has already been fulfilled in the creation of Israel as a UN member State. As I noted before, San Remo forbids denying the civil rights of the prior resident population–which has nonetheless been done in spades. The only reason why San Remo does not apply to Israel as admitted to the UN is that such admission evokes State sovereignty (Article 78). San Remo doesn’t help you. Nor does “close” mean “anywhere we want” as that de facto destroys the rights of prior residents, as we now see. As I noted, Article 83 allows the SC to alter conditions for security within the framework of the Trust; SC 2334 weakly does that given that 1) the land now called Israel was once in that Trust and is now the “close” homeland of Jews; and 2) Israeli occupation of the West Bank has systematically denied civil rights to the occupied population. Declaring settlements illegal while doing nothing about it directly is a quite weak application of Article 83 (and Article 82). If you persist in this UN constitutionalism things will get even worse for you. Paragraph c of Article 76 reads that UN Trusts shall

          “encourage respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion, and to encourage recognition of the interdependence of the peoples of the world”

          which again the Israeli occupation has failed to do. You have no case for Greater Israel via San Remo, just as you had not via Arab State refusal on UN GA 181.

          Reply to Comment
    3. Mark

      I put it all down to Yasser Arafat insisting that PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The result was that WB citizens lost their right to Jordanian citizenship. Things have only gone downhill since then.

      Reply to Comment