America and Israel at the UN — change of course?
Washington - The United States cast its first veto to kill a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel on September 10, 1972. Ever since, defending Israel against censure has been routine US procedure in vote after vote — 42 in all — on actions from invading Lebanon and laying waste to Gaza to building illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
But if US President Barack Obama and senior aides mean what they say, Israel can no longer take the American protective umbrella at the United Nations for granted. Frustrated by what it sees as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s lack of commitment to a two-state solution, Washington is reassessing its Israel-right-or-wrong attitude at the world body.
Obama conveyed that message in a telephone call to Netanyahu after the Israeli elections in March. Netanyahu’s re-election came partly on a pledge he would not to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state as long as he is in office.
Washington shrugged off Netanyahu’s later attempts to backtrack from such campaign statements. Instead, administration officials began talking about the Israeli- Palestinian contact in language seldom used in public. Listen to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough: “An occupation that has lasted almost 50 years must end and the Palestinian people must have the right to live and govern themselves in their own sovereign state… Israel cannot maintain military control over another people indefinitely.”
If past performance were a reliable guide to the future, one might assume that such blunt language and the threat of furling the US veto umbrella would remain words without action. After all, the US-Israeli relationship has often resembled that of an indulgent parent with a wilful child rather than nation-to-nation ties. The Israeli tail, as critics call it, has often wagged the big American superdog.
The United States’ oft-stated opposition to Jewish settlements on the West Bank, on land that would form part of a Palestinian state, has been routinely ignored. Relentless expansion has brought the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank to close to 400,000, from around 100,000 at the time of the 1993 Oslo accord. More than 250,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem.
No matter how deep the Obama administration’s irritation runs at present, it is not contemplating using the huge levers it has, in theory, to influence Israeli behaviour. US military and economic aid of more than $3 billion a year will continue to flow. The United States’ commitment to give Israel a “qualitative military edge” over other Middle East countries is enshrined in law.
So, furling its protective umbrella over Israel at the United Nations is not the biggest tool in the American policy box. But a vote of censure along with the other 14 members of the Security Council would be the end of a tradition that has long poisoned US relations with the Arab world. A resolution drafted by the United States would have even greater impact.
Samantha Power, the US ambassador at the United Nations and a close confidante of Obama, has hinted that a US resolution on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer unthinkable. At a congressional hearing in mid-April, Power reminded lawmakers that the administration had discussed putting forward a resolution on ending the Gaza war between Hamas and Israel last summer.
An end to the automatic US veto could have consequences beyond deeper diplomatic isolation for Israel.
In the European Union there are discussions on measures to label products from Jewish settlements in the West Bank, a move that would discourage European buyers. Supporters of the decade-old campaign for boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) against Israel are confident their BDS movement could gain momentum.
Obama, a week after the Israeli elections, said that the US re-evaluation of its stand at the United Nations would wait until the formation of a new Israeli government. In other words: Let’s see what you do, not what you say.
Some Israeli officials understood the message. Three days after Obama’s remark, the Jerusalem municipality said it was halting plans to build 1,500 apartments for Jews in an East Jerusalem neighbourhood. No reason was given for the unexpected halt but it’s a safe assumption that it was meant as a gesture to ward off a showdown at the United Nations.