Resolution 2334: Why America Abstained
Part A: Samantha Power and John Kerry
At the meeting on Friday 23 December when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2334, Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gave a speech explaining why the U.S. abstained on the motion. She began with a 1982 quote from Ronald Reagan. “The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements during the transitional period. Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in these talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.”
In doing so, she set the stage for an argument that the U.S. position on Resolution 2334 was consistent with bi-partisan American policy on Israel for 35 years. In fact, she said it had been American policy for fifty years. That position is simple: there should be a freeze on settlement activity, and that freeze would be the most important condition for the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians. Further, she added that Barack Obama thus far had been “the only president who had not had at least one Israeli-Palestinian-related Security Council resolution pass during his tenure.”
She then segued to explaining Obama’s exceptionalism. The reason the U.S. did not support the Resolution, was not because of what it said, but because it was taking place at the United Nations, which had a record of distorted criticism of Israel. In 2016 alone, 18 resolutions critical of Israel had been passed in the Security Council and 12 in the Human Rights Council. Israel for the last fifty years has been treated differently than any other member. The U.S. has repeatedly fought for the right of Israel to be given the same treatment as any other state. Thus, though the Resolution was both justified and necessary, the venue had to be taken into account. In other words, the U.S. was not supporting the Resolution because of United Nations double standards.
Two additional reasons were offered for abstaining. “It is because this forum too often continues to be biased against Israel; because there are important issues that are not sufficiently addressed in this resolution; and because the United States does not agree with every word in this text, that the United States did not vote in favor of the resolution.” [my italics] On the other hand, “because this resolution reflects the facts on the ground – and is consistent with U.S. policy across Republican and Democratic administration throughout the history of the State of Israel – that the United States did not veto it.”
In other word, the U.S. agreed with the thrust of the Resolution and it reflected U.S. policy over decades. We agree, but we have a few quibbles. If the Resolution does not impose a solution nor threaten Israel’s security, why even consider a veto? Since Kerry suggested that security was the fundamental issue for Israel, but Resolution 2334 did not properly address the security problem, why not veto the Resolution? Further, although security is a fundamental issue, in my estimation, it is not the fundamental issue since Israel is now the predominant military power in the region.
There were other factors for not vetoing the Resolution. “The settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the very viability of that two-state solution,” an argument that would be expanded upon by John Kerry a few days later. The numbers of units have increased. There are now 90,000 (my figure was 80,000) settlers living outside Area C. A program of land seizures, settlement expansions and legalizations has been underway. New plans are in process for additional units. There is even a proposed law in the Knesset to legalize outposts and it was that factor that the U.S. claimed was the catalyst for bringing Res. 2334 forward.
And then the nub of the case for the Resolution. “One cannot simultaneously champion expanding Israeli settlements and champion a viable two-state solution that would end the conflict. One has to make a choice between settlements and separation.” I have tried to argue that this disjunction is incorrect. As much as one might oppose settlements as an impediment to peace, it is not correct that thickening existing settlements stands in the way of a two-State solution. It just means that the two-State solution that might emerge would be unacceptable to the Palestinians. But as I have tried to demonstrate, any two-State solution that does not transfer the Old City to the Palestinians is unacceptable to them. Freezing settlements would not cut that Gordian knot.
Why then did the U.S. not veto the resolution as it did in 2011 that focused on settlements as the main impediment to a two-State solution? The reasons offered were that this Resolution was more balanced pointing to the threat of violence as well. Only, as I indicated before, the agents of violence were not identified in the Resolution but were in Samantha’s address. “The most recent wave of Palestinian violence has seen terrorists commit hundreds of attacks – including driving cars into crowds of innocent civilians and stabbing mothers in front of their children. Yet rather than condemn these attacks, Hamas, other radical factions, and even certain members of Fatah have held up the terrorists as heroes, and used social media to incite others to follow in their murderous footsteps. And while President Abbas and his party’s leaders have made clear their opposition to violence, terrorism, and extremism, they have too often failed to condemn specific attacks or condemn the praised heaped upon the perpetrators.”
It is clear that the general clause about violence was introduced so that the Americans would not veto the Resolution, even though everyone understood the thrust of the Resolution to be the same as the 2011 effort. Samantha never explained why the wording about violence in the Resolution was considered sufficient to restrain from exercising a veto, especially in light of her remarks that identified the main, though not exclusive, source of the violence.
Power reiterated, and Kerry would later stress, that Israel could not remain both a democracy and a Jewish state if it continued on its present course. But this is a distortion. If Israel were to incorporate Area C into Israel as well as the Old City, and if the new state of Palestine were to allow the 80-90,000 resident to stay as citizens of Palestine, while possibly also allowing them dual citizenship, Israel could remain both democratic and a Jewish state. It is only if the extremists in the Israeli cabinet push through their one state option that being a Jewish state and being a democratic state become, at one and the same time, though not impossible, very improbable.
Power offered one final argument for not vetoing the Resolution. The U.S. was absolutely committed to Israel’s security. However, “continued settlement building seriously undermines Israel’s security.” Power and the State Department were not claiming the buildings themselves threatened Israel’s security, or even the increased population in the settlements actually did. It was sufficient that these initiatives on the ground provided an excuse or rationale at the very least for undermining the peace process and the vision of a two-State solution. And perception in politics is almost everything.
On 28 December 2016 at the Dean Acheson Auditorium in Washington, John Kerry offered his own remarks, not just on Resolution 2334, but on Middle East Peace as the title indicated– note, not Israeli-Palestinian peace. Yet his opening statement stated, “Today, I want to share candid thoughts about an issue which for decades has animated the foreign policy dialogue here and around the world – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Was this a Freudian slip? Was John Kerry of the opinion that the key to peace in the Middle East – after what has happened in Iraq, in Syria and Turkey – is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
After this, Kerry offered some truisms, the first identical to one offered by Samantha – Obama has been deeply committed to Israel and its security – a proposition right wing supporters of Israel not only question but insist is false. He then cited a premise rather than a truism, a premise based on futurology rather than a record of fact and history. It happens to be one I share: “the two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.” That is because I believe that a single state with equal rights and opportunities for both Jews and non-Jewish Palestinians is a complete delusion, though if I am incorrect, it would ensure just and lasting peace. No other one state solution would be either just or lasting.
But as I have written earlier, there are many two-State solutions, not just one. To which was he referring? He never explained at this point, but went on to put forth his conviction that such an outcome of an Israel as a Jewish and democratic state living in peace and security beside a Palestinian state that offered its citizens freedom and dignity was “now [my italics] in jeopardy.” Not earlier! Not next year! But now. If this did not take place, it would be bad for Israelis, bad for Palestinians and bad for U.S. interests in the region. “Both sides must act now to preserve the possibility of peace,” Kerry intoned. That set out one objective of the speech – explaining why that possibility of peace was now in jeopardy.
The second and related objective was to explain why the U.S. had abstained from voting on the Resolution. For it had become clear that Samantha’s remarks had not done the job. None of the reasons offered by Samantha either explained why the U.S. did not support the Resolution, for the reasons for not doing so seemed mundane. And if they were given any significant importance, then the U.S. should have vetoed the Resolution. Further, the question of “Why now?” needed to be answered. With Samantha’s emphasis on continuity in policy over five decades, the puzzlement over why America did not veto the Resolution grew rather than diminished. Further, the reasons for abstaining – mainly the UN’s double standards – seemed to indicate that this was precisely a time when the U.S. should not permit any anti-Israel UN resolution to pass since, as she had herself documented, that double standard seemed to have gotten much worse in 2016.
Kerry now openly declared that the U.S. abstained so that the resolution could pass. The U.S. not only favoured the Resolution but viewed it as a crucial step to getting both parties back on the road to resolving their differences. That could only be done, he indicated, if he filled in the details of how those differences could be resolved. And he was propelled to do that because vital American interests and values were at stake. Further, those values now made it imperative that the U.S. stand aside and allow the Resolution to pass. He could not allow a “dangerous dynamic to take hold.” Now? Suddenly? Had not the trends in settlement policies by the Israelis been even worse in the past?
It may be the case that “friends need to tell each other hard truths,” so the question rose as one listened to his speech whether it would deal with those hard truths. Would John Kerry admit that the settlement policies had gone too far and for too long to reverse and dissolve most of the settlements, that attempting to do so would destroy Israel, that reversing the settlements would instigate a civil war in Israel that would of necessity impact on the Palestinians, that a two-State solution was available that would not involve dissolving the vast majority of the settlements, that such a solution was available if only Israel would surrender its claims on the Old City and that the vast majority of Jewish Israelis were united on not surrendering such a claim, and that the Palestinians would not agree to accept the continuity of the vast majority of the settlements, with different clusters of settlements having different solutions, unless the Old City fell under Palestinian sovereignty?
Well certainly not before Kerry created a number of defensive barriers against criticisms. It was certainly true, contrary to the delusions of the Israeli and American right, that Obama has extended himself enormously on behalf of Israel’s military security through intelligence cooperation, through joint military exercises, through American assistance to the Iron Dome defensive system, through a consistent opposition to the BDS campaign, and through a memorandum of understanding that offered Israel $38 billion in military assistance over the next ten years, a commitment that counted for 50% of America’s Foreign Military Financing. Nor should there be any doubt about John Kerry’s sincere commitment both to the security of Israel and the dignity of Palestinians.
Kerry then repeated:” the two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy.” And as we know from Torah studies and the study of Shakespeare, repetition signals a profound message. He cited violence, terrorism, incitement on the one hand, without connecting it with a specific agent or agency, and, on the other hand, settlement expansion and seemingly endless occupation where the agency was unequivocally clear as responsible for the clear and present danger. There was no mention that violence was now under greater control than perhaps at any time in Israel’s history and that the puffball of the so-called Third Intifada of stabbings and rammings was but a symptom. There was also no mention that the multiplication of numbers and locations of settlements had been on a severe decline as the thickening of settlements had accelerated. It was not very clear why current levels of violence and current levels of settlement building were now posing such an extraordinary danger to peace when both had much more clearly done so in the past.
Trends on the ground are combining “to destroy hoped for peace”? That is a self-evident truth? The problem really is that Israel has grown more physically secure as it has consolidated its occupation, but grown much more politically insecure as Israel has been losing the international diplomatic war to the Palestinians. Has Obama’s unqualified support for Israel’s military security contributed to that situation? Kerry not only never answered that question, he never asked it.
And this was his riposte to the idealist dream of a single unitary state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. “If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic – it cannot be both.” Oh, but he was not speaking of a unitary state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. He was speaking of a Jewish state that established permanent rule over Palestinians and relegated them to an inferior status. That is a theoretical possibility, but believing that it is an imminent threat ignores the trends of facts on the ground.
Palestinians have come far too far in the process of self-government to put up with any such political rule over them. Nor would the world allow it. If the extremists in Netanyahu’s cabinet win, highly unlikely, then Israel would lose. The prospect of a Jewish state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is almost as delusionary as the prospect of a unitary democratic state. Neither is a realistic option. One is an idealist impossible dream and the other is a fascist nightmare with only a slightly greater chance of coming into being. Kerry poses a false dichotomy as well one with each of the poles highly unlikely while leaving out the more realistic various options of two-State solutions.
Bad arguments often start with false dichotomies. Kerry’s argument falls into that category. Nor does Kerry have a very good grasp of history. He made his first trip to Israel in 1986. When he claims that, “After decades of conflict, many no longer see the other side as people, only as threats and enemies,” as if this perception of the other emerged and consolidated itself only recently. The reality s that both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians deserve more respect. Both sides have viewed the other as enemies, but to different degrees by different factions. Both sides have recognized that the other are people, but with many interests and objectives at odds with their own, even as both groups demonstrated a number of shared interests and values.
Has the situation become worse? In many ways it has. Hamas is in power in Gaza and Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist. If a fair election were held in the West Bank today, polls indicate that Hamas would emerge the victor. On the Israeli side, it has the most extreme cabinet in the history of Israel, one with a strong faction totally opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state living alongside Israel. On the other hand, even in Gaza, the Palestinians have developed many of the instruments and institutions of self-government. Israel and Palestine are the closest trading partners with the other. There are efforts at cooperation and joint projects in many areas. However, the trend lines are worrisome.
But are settlements the reason for those trend lines? The Israeli cabinet has grown more extreme, I venture to say, in part in answer to those who focus most of their attention on the alleged threat the settlements pose to a viable peace agreement. I personally concur that an agreement might have been much easier if most of the settlements in Area C and the settlements on the other side of the Protection Barrier had not been built. But that fact might also have removed any pressure from the Palestinians to make peace. Historical counterfactuals are so difficult to calculate.
On the other hand, historical realities are not. Never before have you had a government in power in parts of Palestine and with the imminent possibility of acquiring power over all of Palestine that is dedicated to the eradication of Israel. When Fatah held that view, it lacked any power. Only in dealing with the realities of power and the need for compromise has Fatah accommodated itself to the reality of Israel. But not without a cost – a cost in support that cannot simply be traced to its unaccountable and poor governance.
With the help of Alex Zisman