Will Obama Back Israeli Punishment of Palestinians for U.N. Overture?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The arrogance of the man seemingly has no bounds but still it seems highly presumptuous for Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to claim to speak for the United States. However, according to AFP, last week, on the eve of the U.S. Presidential election, he said the U.S. would subject the Palestinians to “severe measures” if their leaders go ahead and seek non-member status at the United Nations General Assembly. Israeli television Channel 10 reported that the rightwing minister said the U.S. would join Tel Aviv in assuring that the Palestinian Authority would “collapse” if the initiative proceeded.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas is planning to take the bid for recognition and admission to the UN assembly November 29. The body’s approval by majority vote in the 193-member body is considered a foregone conclusion.

The strange irony of all this is that for months now the Israeli leaders and their supporters in the U.S. and Europe, and most of the major media in this country, have insisted that a UN vote in favor of the Palestinians would be meaningless, have no effect on the situation in the region, and that a Middle East settlement can only be secured through negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Somehow that view doesn’t mesh with the near hysterical response and threats emanating from the Israeli government in response to the decision by Palestinian President Abbas to seek UN recognition. What is obvious, however, is that the Israelis are aware that the UN action would only increase the growing isolation of Tel Aviv in the international community, and lay bare the opposition to the continuation of Israel occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the unrelenting Israeli colonial settlement expansion.

On November 9, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Lieberman has also threatened to accelerate settlement building in the occupied territories should the Palestinians go to the UN.

Much media attention in the U.S. over the past couple of weeks has centered on the consequences of the re-election of U.S. President Barack Obama on U.S. –Israeli relations and the outlook for moving ahead with the “peace process.” It appears the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu was badly misled by its supporters in the U.S. Sensing some diplomatic advantage, the Israeli Prime Minister injected himself into U.S. politics on behalf of defeated candidate Republican Mitt Romney. Now that Obama has returned to the White House, the Israeli leadership has – at least in public – adopted a more conciliatory attitude toward the Administration. Supporters of the Netanyahu government, both in Israel and here, appeared to have concluded the prime minister’s bold intrusion into U.S. politics was unwise.

However, the official Israeli response to the prospect of a vote at the UN remains unchanged. “Only in direct negotiations can the real positions be clarified,” Netanyahu says. Adding that if the Palestinians are serious about a peaceful settlement they would agree to sit down together “immediately” and negotiate. A bid for UN membership will “only push peace back and will only produce unnecessary instability,” Netanyahu says.

Not all the hawks in the Netanyahu’s Likud party government are being restrained. Last week, Danny Danon, deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, reacted to Obama’s re-election by telling reporters that “Obama’s victory demonstrates that the state of Israel must take care of its own interests.”

“We cannot rely on anyone but ourselves. Obama has hurt the United States by his naïve leadership in foreign policy, which prefers the Arab world over the Western world, along with Israel.” Dayan continued, “The state of Israel will not capitulate before Obama.”

“Recent second-term presidents, most tantalizingly Bill Clinton, turned their attention to the Middle East,” the British newspaper The Independent said editorially November 8. “Mr. Obama, faced with the complexities of the Arab Spring, a civil war in Syria that threatens to destabilize the whole region, and pressure to use force to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb, may have a unique opportunity, post-Afghanistan, to address Israel-Palestine in a wider context.”

On the day of the U.S. election the Netanyahu government’s nine senior ministers were scheduled to discuss the Palestinian Authority’s decision to request an upgrade of its status at the United Nations. According to Haaretz, they were to “consider a range of retaliatory actions against the Palestinian leadership,” an official in Jerusalem said.

“This unilateral step has broken the rules and crossed a red line,” Lieberman said before heading to Vienna to attend a gathering meeting of Israeli ambassadors to Europe where, according to the Jerusalem Post, they were to “discuss ways to lobby European governments not to support the plan and to pressure the Palestinian Authority to either delay, or drop, its bid.”

A Palestinian official recently told Reuters that the votes of 12 states of the 27-member European Union states are committed to vote for the admission of Palestine and that some were still undecided. Among the European delegations expected to vote “no” on the admission of Palestine are the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Georgia. Palestinians can expect overwhelmingly support from the delegates of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The ambassadors evidently won’t have to spend much effort on France. Last month Netanyahu met with President Francois Hollande in Paris after which the Israeli leader slammed the Palestinian efforts toward international recognition, saying, “Going to the UN with unilateral declarations is not negotiations. It’s the opposite of negotiations.” The Socialist Party President called for an “unconditional” resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. According to the Israel media, he added that France was still committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East but warned the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas against trying to force the issue unilaterally.

Following Netanyahu’s visit to France, Hollande called for an “unconditional” resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. “There is the temptation of the Palestinian Authority to seek at the UN General Assembly that which it fails to obtain through negotiation,” he said. However, without at least a settlement freeze the likelihood of a resumption of talks is remote.

Following announcement last week that the Israeli government intends to build 1,200 new houses in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, expressed Europe’s “deep regrets.” She wrote, “Settlements are illegal under international law. The EU has repeatedly urged the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, in line with its obligations under the roadmap.” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called the Israeli decision a “hindrance” to the peace process

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn this week told Spiegel Online that the Palestinian application to the UN “is an absolutely justified request and not a provocation. It is often forgotten that the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of 1948 provided for two states — Israel next to an Arab state,” said Asselborn. “After the Palestinians failed in their bid last year to be recognized as a state by the UN Security Council, Abbas announced he would follow the Vatican model and apply for the status of an observer state at the General Assembly. He even offered to formulate the resolution together with the Israelis, but Netanyahu refused.”

The real question is whether the Israelis are committed to a “two-state” solution, or any solution, or whether their strategy is to continue to establish “facts on the ground” through continued settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.

On November 12, Mohammad Shtayyeh, a member of the Palestinian team working on the UN bid, said President Obama had voiced his opposition to the UN move, but that the Palestinian leader made it clear the decision was final. “I find it extremely shocking that the US and Israel would oppose this step,” Shtayyeh was quoted by Prensa Latina as saying. “What did we do to deserve this punishment? Did we declare war?”

Another Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, told official Voice of Palestine radio, “Obama did not utter any threats but there are threats from the [US] Congress, which has a draft bill, according to which it would demand closing the PLO office in Washington and cutting off aid if the Palestinian leadership pursues any move at the UN and its related agencies.”

This week the U.S. stepped up efforts to defer the Palestinians from going to the UN, including sending a special envoy to Europe to meet with Abbas. “We’ve been clear in the past about what some of the consequences that this would generate, or engender,” State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said November 13.

“The stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the lack of prospects for their resumption anytime soon has persuaded the Palestinian Authority (PA) to chart its own course by applying to the United Nations General Assembly (U.N.G.A.) as a non-voting member state,” wrote Alon Ben-Meir, a senior fellow at New York University, at the Huffington Post October 31. “However uncertain the prospect of such a move may be from the PA’s perspective, there is very little to lose at this juncture and perhaps much to gain in taking such a unilateral step.

“The Palestinians are counting on Israel’s increasing isolation in the international community and the overwhelming political support for their cause, which is also the official policy of the U.S. The forthcoming elections in the U.S. as well as in Israel, regardless of their outcome, will provide the Palestinians with an opportune time to thrust the nearly forgotten Palestinian problem into the Israeli and American political agendas while ensuring that the conflict returns to the forefront of the international community’s attention.”

Ben-Meir pointed to the recent uniting of Netanyahu’s Likud Party with the Yisrael Beytenu group, led by Lieberman, seriously suggests that coalition government “will hold onto even more extremist views than the current one, which will further diminish any hope for achieving a peaceful solution if Netanyahu wants to legalize settlements.”

Lieberman’s threats to harm Palestinians have included withholding from the Palestinian Authority government the tax and tariff revenues Israel collects and canceling working permits of Palestinians who are in Israel. “If the Palestinians go to the UN General Assembly with a new unilateral initiative, they must know they will be subject to severe measures by Israel and the United States,” Lieberman said, adding, “If they persist with this project, I will ensure that the Palestinian Authority collapses.” So far, there has been no word as to whether the Obama Administration will go along with what would amount to not only collective punishment but action taken against a whole people for an action that involves no violence.

The U.S. State Department is trying to twist the arms of the Europeans to induce them to act against the Palestinians at the UN and Washington’s seeming willingness to let the far right in Israel speak for it in the international arena and make threats on behalf of the Obama Administration is not a pretty sight. Carrying out such threats would be ugly. It is not in the interest of peace in the Middle East. It would be a mockery of the lofty pledges the President made at Cairo University three years ago and it is not the kind of thing the people who gave Obama the Nobel Peace prize had in mind.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.