Update: In response to the 14-0 vote by the UN Security Council to condemn all Israeli building and activity in the West Bank as “illegal,” including building in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and Israel’s sovereign access to the Western Wall, the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel has issued the following statement, strongly denouncing both the resolution and the Obama Administration, which broke decades of diplomatic precedent by abstaining, thus allowing the resolution to pass. Israel accuses the Obama Administration of having in fact “colluded” behind the scenes to produce both the vote and the resolution itself:
“Israel rejects this shameful anti-Israel resolution at the UN and will not abide by its terms. At a time when the Security Council does nothing to stop the slaughter of half a million people in Syria, it disgracefully gangs up on the one true democracy in the Middle East, Israel, and calls the Western Wall “occupied territory.” The Obama administration not only failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the UN, it colluded with it behind the scenes. Israel looks forward to working with President-elect Trump and with all our friends in Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, to negate the harmful effects of this absurd resolution.”
This afternoon several non-permanent members of the UN Security Council will submit a resolution that declares all settlements illegal under international law and demands that the country cease construction in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and other territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war. There is nothing new about such wildly unbalanced resolutions at the UN, of course—except this time, the Obama Administration will reportedly refrain from using the U.S. veto and will rather abstain from the vote, breaking with decades of American statesmanship that has protected its strategic Middle East ally from the legal consequences of UN rhetoric.
The resolution was authored by Egypt, which shelved the draft after the Netanyahu government reached out to the transition team of President-elect Donald Trump, which then pressured Cairo to drop the resolution. Venezuela, Malaysia, Senegal, and New Zealand say that if Egypt doesn’t push forward, they will. The resolution will permanently enshrine as a matter of international law that the Western Wall is “occupied Palestinian territory,” and that Jews building homes in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem is illegal. One prominent member of the pro-Israel community in Washington called the resolution “a nuclear bomb.”
The Obama Administration is already briefing friendly press organizations that they’re showing no animus toward the Jewish state in refusing to veto the resolution. Rather, it’s “tough love”: for an Israel that seems not to have the will or vision to take chances for peace.
That’s not how Israel sees it. As a senior Israeli official in Jerusalem told Tablet: “President Obama and Secretary Kerry are behind this shameful move against Israel at the UN. The US administration secretly cooked up with the Palestinians an extreme anti Israeli resolution behind Israel’s back which would be a tailwind for terror and boycotts and effectively make the Western Wall occupied Palestinian territory. President Obama could declare his willingness to veto this resolution in an instant but instead is pushing it. This is an abandonment of Israel which breaks decades of US policy of protecting Israel at the UN and undermines the prospects of working with the next administration of advancing peace.”
In a sense, the UN vote is a perfect bookend to Obama’s Presidency. A man who came to office promising to put “daylight” between the United States and Israel, has done exactly that by breaking with decades of American policy. It is also seeking—contrary to established tradition and practice, which strictly prohibit such lame-duck actions—to tie the hands of the next White House, which has already made its pro-Israel posture clear.
No doubt that many of those critical of the U.S.-Israel relationship will defend and applaud the administration’s action, even as the effects of the resolution are obscene. So what if it enshrines in international law the fact that Jews can’t build homes or have sovereign access to their holy sites in Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish people for more than 3000 years? Israel, as Kerry said, is too prosperous to care about peace with the Palestinians. Maybe some hardship will shake some sense into the Jewish State—which after all, could easily have made a just and secure peace with the Palestinian leadership at any time over the past two decades, if that’s what it wanted to do. Accounts to the contrary, from Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, say, or left-wing Israeli politicians like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the late Shimon Peres, are simply propaganda generated by the pro-Israel Lobby, whose wings the President has thankfully clipped.
But the Obama Administration’s abstention isn’t just about Israel or bilateral relations with a vital partner in a key region. It’s also about the prestige of the United States and its power—the power, for instance, undergirding international institutions like the United Nations. Consider how the Obama Administration has used the UN the last several years—to legalize the nuclear program of Iran, a state sponsor of terror, and make it illegal for Jews to build in their historical homeland. In Turtle Bay, the White House partners with sclerotic socialist kleptocracies like Venezuela in order to punish allies, like Israel. Is this American moral leadership? For Sean Penn, maybe.
Israel is likely to profess not to care that much about the actions of a lame-duck President in a forum that has long been famous for its antipathy to the Jewish State. But in private, Israeli officials are said to be panicking at the fresh gust of wind that the President Obama has blown into the sails of the BDS movement, especially in Europe.
Also panicking are Democratic members of Congress whose re-election prospects in 2018 may have just been sacrificed by the departing leader of their Party. Democratic Senator and reputed Presidential hopeful Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a J Street favorite who is up for re-election in 2018 in a state that Donald Trump won by a 9 percent margin, showed the extent of his own distress on Friday by issuing a statement opposing a U.S. abstention. That statement read in part: “Earlier this fall I joined Senate colleagues urging the Administration to uphold its position opposing one-sided resolutions at the U.N. Security Council regarding Israel. Any lasting peace must be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, not imposed by the international community.”
Whether issuing such statements will be enough to keep swing-state Jewish voters and other pro-Israel Democrats in line in 2018 remains to be seen—but clearly, the health of the Democratic Party, which lost over 1000 officeholders during Obama’s tenure, is hardly the first thing on the President’s mind, either. What matters is dismantling the alliance system that has kept America and much of the rest of the world secure in favor of a new system of the President’s own devising, in which the U.S. partners with Iran and stands idly by while 500,000 civilians are massacred in Syria, and Russia and China launch cyber-attacks targeting key U.S. institutions without fear of retribution or reprisal—actions that are reserved only for America’s friends.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).