Obama Surrenders on Settlements

Susan RiceThe recent U.S. veto of a UN Security Council resolution denouncing Israel’s settlement policy is a tragicomic way for the Obama administration to abandon its claim to global leadership. But that is what Ambassador Susan Rice’s “nay” vote on February 18 signifies. The battle for a rational foreign policy in Washington has been over for some time. This veto represents surrender.

In George W. Bush’s days, such a veto would have been much less fraught. No one would have expected any better from that administration. And the erosion of U.S. economic, military, and diplomatic leverage, although underway, had not been made manifest. In those days, the United States did not pretend to care what the rest of the world thought, and there was even less that anyone else could do about it.

How things have changed! The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might not represent defeat but they are Pyrrhic victories at best, with huge military, financial, and political costs. At the same time, the self-inflicted financial disaster has certainly dulled the luster of the U.S. economic model as the U.S. global position is crumbling BRIC by BRIC.

Across the Middle East, popular uprisings are removing the kleptocrats whose compliance with U.S. policy could be bought. They are also empowering a citizenry whose visceral reaction to U.S. support of Israel is on a par with African reaction to U.S. backing of South Africa’s former Apartheid regime. Indeed, the ouster of Mubarak removed one of the main U.S. levers on the Palestinians. Although Obama did not go to the aid of his ally, his hesitation, influenced by pro-Israeli interests, hardly garnered much street credibility in the region.

This veto also dramatically overturns the pledges that Obama made in his Cairo and Istanbul speeches about a renewed relationship with the Arabs and Muslims in the region. It not only abandons the Palestinians, it also abandons those Israelis who had been fighting for a peace settlement and the growing number of American Jews who have been combating Likudnik belligerence.

U.S. and Israel Isolated

The United States defied no fewer than 130 nations who had sponsored the resolution. Those voting for it included France, India, Germany, Brazil, the United Kingdom, and even Colombia. Given its desperate attempts to avert the resolution, the administration cannot claim ignorance of the significance of the vote or, indeed, the consequences of the veto.

The force with which UN Ambassador Rice attacked the Israeli settlement policy in her explanation of the U.S. vote was perhaps designed to mitigate the international effect of the veto. But it did nothing for U.S. standing, since it simply highlighted the surrender to Netanyahu, who ignored Rice’s stern admonitory statement with the same insouciance that he has brushed off Obama’s pleas. For U.S. friends and allies, the veto sent a strong message that Washington would ignore their wishes and interests when tweaked by a powerful domestic lobby – and that U.S. concern for democracy and international law does not extend to itself or Israel.

The veto also reveals how much the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policy reflects the influence of the former Clinton administration. At that time, the United States shifted from considering settlements “illegal” to labeling them “unhelpful.” Also under Clinton, the United States abandoned support of international law to state that the way forward for Israeli-Palestinian peace must be by “bilateral negotiations.” After such negotiations in Oslo, Israel achieved the normalization of relations with much of the Arab, Islamic, and non-aligned world, and built settlements regardless. Palestinians gave up tangible international diplomatic leverage in return for an interminable process, a road map folded into a Mobius strip that circled around endlessly.

With most Palestinians realizing the inefficacy of armed resistance, the PLO began to build its last line of defense: international law. The Palestinian mission to the UN emphasized the corpus of UN decisions and international conventions against the occupation and the settlements. The parties to the Fourth Geneva convention, the International Court of Justice, the UN General Assembly, all venues where the United States had no veto, reaffirmed the Palestinian position.

Israel was deeply concerned by such moves. That is why, prodded by Israel, the Clinton administration composed the mantra now being recited by Obama’s team, that in effect, international law could and should be disregarded, and the Palestinians should cut a deal. Palestinian leaders have consistently pretended that the United States was an honest broker, even as Washington kept strong-arming them into more and more concessions. Between the veto and the WikiLeaks revelations, they can no longer pretend that this is so.

Wider Consequences

In the wake of the UN vote, the Palestinians will likely mount a more vigorous campaign for world public opinion, which will throw Washington’s subservience to Israeli interests into greater relief. At the UN, speaker after speaker, even the British, looked forward to welcoming Palestine as a member state by this September. In a polite way, U.S. allies were throwing down the gauntlet for another confrontation with Washington.

Israel, meanwhile, finds itself in a more fragile position. If it rejects the new Palestinian state, it will be much more vulnerable to calls for international sanctions, boycotts, and divestments. Significantly, the EU is a much more significant trading partner than the United States, and European publics are significantly more inclined to such measures. So, European politicians will find themselves squeezed between pressure from the public to further isolate Israel and pressure from the United States to back off. After the flotilla conflict with Turkey, Israel has lost whatever friends it has in the Muslim world. There is little prospect of Arab forces marching on Tel Aviv, but clearly the peace is about to get even colder, with less cooperation on policing the border between Gaza and Egypt and even more pressure for a regional nuclear free zone.

The Palestinians can, and very likely will, take up other options to isolate the United States and Israel. It could reconvene the meeting of signatories to the Geneva Convention, or more tellingly, it could reconvene the Emergency General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace resolution that the United States moved to bypass the Soviet veto during the Korean War. That session is currently adjourned, but it would once again emphasize the U.S. isolation.

The more the United States is isolated in its unqualified defense of Israel, the less amenable governments in the region will be to cooperation with Washington, except when it clearly meets their own interests. The future of U.S. military bases in the region – in Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait – will for instance become more tenuous. On a wider level, Obama has lost much of the ground for public diplomacy he had seized when he replaced George W. Bush.

The veto – combined with the tepid and belated response to Egypt, Tunisia, and Bahrain – has also complicated U.S. response to the emerging civil war in Libya. Gaddafi’s regional unpopularity would likely ensure some local cooperation in enforcing a no-fly zone, for instance. But even if it went ahead, it would leave the world with the big question: why does the United States fly to stop hundreds of Libyans being killed from the air, but supplies the planes, drones, bombs, and shells for Israel to kill a thousand Palestinians? Regional public opinion, now politically important, is as likely to assume that U.S. sorties against Libya were flown on behalf of Israel as much as to support Libyan protestors.

Senior Foreign Policy In Focus analyst Ian Williams is a journalist and author. Much of his work can be found on his blog, Deadline Pundit