A far-ranging tempest in a teakettle has been raging since December 23. That was the day President Obama allowed the United Nations Security Council to issue a wholly symbolic resolution condemning Israel. As Karen DeYoung wrote in the Post:
Israel had been a third rail of U.S. political debate for decades, but Obama, aides noted, never had to run for office again. He had nothing to lose. When the vote finally came two days later, all but one of the Security Council’s 15 members, including Russia, China and the United States’ closest European allies, approved it. U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who had just received the go-ahead from Obama, via a call from White House national security adviser Susan E. Rice, raised her hand high in abstention. The resolution was approved.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 was in part a matter of timing. Egypt, sensing that the Age of Trump was nigh, wanted a vote on the issue before Obama left office.
Why? Because the government in Jerusalem continues to build settlements outside of their territory. At this moment, there are six hundred thousand Israelis settling in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. That’s a quarter of a million more since the Oslo Accords (1993 and 1996) and one hundred thousand more since the Obama Administration took over.
The settlements are being built on Palestinian territory. Israel has militarily occupied this territory since 1967’s Six-Day War. The International Community considers these settlements illegal. Israel keeps building them anyway. Israel wants to break up Palestine into separate territories, so they can never be a single state. That’s the backstory.
And this: Every year, the UN tries to condemn Israel for their various behaviors in Palestine. It’s as regular as cursing in winter, as reliable as Keith Richards never dying. Normally, the United States vetoes any such objections: we’re Israel’s protector. That, and the billions of dollars we pay them in foreign aid, is what makes us their chief ally—occasionally, their only ally. This proposal-and-veto dance happens over and over again. Nobody expects anything different.
This go-around, however, was a bit different. This time, Obama’s administration stepped aside and let the resolution progress uninterrupted. The Americans didn’t vote for the resolution, but they didn’t block it either. We abstained.
Then the President let Secretary of State Kerry make a speech warning Israel about how continued building of settlements would endanger the two-state solution.
As Nagourney and Otterman wrote for the Times:
The Security Council’s 14-to-0 vote a week ago condemned Israel’s construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a “flagrant violation under international law” and an obstacle to peace in the region.
Well, my God, you should have heard the ruckus this caused. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, a man known for eating up non-Israeli territory—and who knows, perhaps large sons—objected to the measure in the strongest possible terms, calling it “shameful,” which is pretty rich for an angry weirdo who recently came on a visit to the U.S. just to mock the sitting President.
Predictably, the usual vaudeville cast of right-wing, fluoride-and-Jehovah fearing cranks in the Congress made various and sundry mouth noises about defunding the United Nations, a well-known New York debating club featuring prep-school graduates and bureaucrats waiting their turn to die in Paris.
The GOP has never been as pessimistic about World War III as the rest of us. They’re bullish on the idea. To be fair, they feel that way about every war, so no wonder they’ve never gotten along with the United Nations. The Republicans have been dreaming of gutting the UN since the institution’s founding, which is weird, since the organization achieves very little and so it isn’t much of a threat. In that way, it’s a bit like the Democratic Party, so perhaps the GOP is reminded of their ancient adversary.
As Zaid Jilani points out in The Intercept:
“the irony is that Barack Obama was far less harsh on Israel’s government than recent Republican presidents, including conservative icon Ronald Reagan. From U.N. protection to economic and military support, these Republican presidents were far more willing to use American leverage to force a change to Israel’s behavior than Obama was. ... the resolution basically restated international law, and received the support of every member of the council except the United States, which abstained. It was hardly controversial in most of the world.”
That last sentence is the key. It was hardly controversial in most of the world. This is what Obama does: he watches the room, discovers the most approved-of, cocktail party opinion, and goes right ahead with it. As Jilani points out, Bush allowed six resolutions, including “a 2004 resolution calling on Israel to stop demolishing the homes of Palestinian civilians.” His father gave the go-ahead to nine Israel-critical resolutions.
When Obama okayed Resolution 2334 to pass … why, watching the ineffectual and inelegant machinery of the United Nations slip into hideous, creaking action, you could almost hear the trundle of God in the world. How many brave men, I wonder, felt their blood curdle when they heard that strongly-worded memos of polite warning were at that moment being stapled and circulated on the island of Manhattan? When the Obama Administration abstained from the vote on 2334, they were following the President’s script, the plan he’s followed for the past eight years: show up, abstain from action, and receive disproportionate praise.
Considering the President’s moment of finger-wagging, I realized it was a classic Obama maneuver: a performative, symbolic gesture of little content or effect. It was all hat—eternities of hat, an abundance of hat—and no cattle. Even at the height of his moral fervor, Obama’s “righteous” actions were lame from birth. His moral leadership reminds me of a chicken sandwich in a Planet Hollywood. When it comes, it arrives late, over-hyped, and half of what you expected.
Naturally, the word for Obama is to watch always what he does, and not what he says. We paid $38 billion dollars to Israel this fall—as Kerry pointed out in the very same warning speech—and that, not this resolution, reveals our opinion on the Israeli government building settlements.
The frustrating fact about the victories of reactionary politics is that they happen not because the right is so strong, but because the left is so weak. Many Israelis dislike these settlements. Many American supporters of Israel find the Netanyahu government’s land-grab policy unjust, a toxin poisoning the hope of a future peace. But Bibi Netanyahu and his party, the right-wing Likud, keep winning elections, and so the settlements go on a-building. Once founded, they are hard to remove. The progressive elements in both countries could fight this expansion, could put a stop to the construction of cities and towns.
Why don’t they? They lack the will, the drive, and the vision. It would take fortitude to oppose these policies, and that is what the progressive wing in both countries lacks.
The UN Security Council statement is a perfect summation of our indifference to political progress in the Middle East, and a nice capper to the Obama administration. We elected this man to achieve the unlikely, and he has: he makes the Republicans look competent. Netanyahu is not Napoleon; he is merely fighting someone who doesn’t care.
Given Obama’s support of drone strikes in other countries, and his love of deportation, no wonder he’s indifferent to the construction of settlements. It would require going against the received wisdom, which is his natural constituency. Settling, after all, is what this President does.