Despite a history of rocky relations between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Obama administration could largely be counted on to watch Israel’s back in the U.N. Security Council, where it succeeded for more than five years in blocking successive efforts by the Palestinians to gain more of the trappings of an independent state and to get the world body to formally censure Israeli settlement policies.
That changed after the stroke of midnight Sunday when, in the early minutes of Monday, July 28, the U.N. Security Council, with the backing of the United States, issued a formal "presidential statement" demanding that Israel and Hamas implement an "immediate and unconditional" cease-fire to end fighting that has left more than 1,000 Palestinians and 43 Israelis dead. The Palestinians say they will continue to seek Security Council support for a legally enforceable resolution demanding that Israel halt its military offensive in Gaza.
The latest U.N. diplomacy comes during a period of deepening tensions between the United States and Israel over the course of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, which Obama maintains needs to stop now, but which Netanyahu insists must be allowed to continue in order to destroy Hamas’s network of subterranean tunnels used for raids on Israel. "I understand that Israel can’t have a cease-fire in which they are not able to — that somehow the tunnels are never going to be dealt with. The tunnels have to be dealt with. We understand that; we’re working at that," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters in Paris on Saturday in a press conference with the foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar. "By the same token, the Palestinians can’t have a cease-fire in which they think the status quo is going to stay and they’re not going to have the ability to be able to begin to live and breathe more freely and move within the crossings and begin to have goods and services that come in from outside."
The U.S. action in New York coincides with growing international pressure to act to stem the suffering of civilians in Gaza at a time when the U.S.-backed Egyptian cease-fire proposal is stalled and the American diplomatic initiative to lock down a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians has fallen short.
Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, said the United States is trying to walk a diplomatic tightrope by telegraphing displeasure with Israel while heading off a fiercer battle in the council with the Arabs, who favor the passage of a much tougher Security Council resolution on the conflict. "In backing the council’s statements, the United States is signaling its frustration with Israel," he said. "But it is also warding off a fight over a tougher resolution on the crisis it would probably have to veto."
The U.S. action also reflected mounting frustration in the State Department over Israel’s rejection on Friday of Kerry’s plan for a seven-day cease-fire. The Israeli cabinet unanimously voted against Kerry’s initiative while political figures across Israel’s political spectrum accused America’s top diplomat of crafting a deal that unfairly rewarded Hamas. Many Israeli officials noted that the militants also rejected Kerry’s call for a seven-day cease-fire, as well as a subsequent call for extending a humanitarian pause that Israeli accepted.
"Both sides are feeling somewhat aggrieved," said Robert Danin, a former State Department official and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "John Kerry feels stung by the Israeli reaction and the way they played it," he said.
On the other hand, he added: "There is a consensus in Israel that what Kerry proposed was not helpful to what Israel was trying to do. There is a sense of incredulity."
In response to the U.N. call for a cease-fire, Israel’s U.N. ambassador protested the council’s failure to condemn Hamas’s battering of Israeli towns and cities with more than 2,500 rockets since the fighting began.
"Ladies and gentleman, we heard a presidential statement right now from the Security Council that miraculously doesn’t mention Hamas or rockets or Israel’s right to defend its citizens," Israeli U.N. envoy Ron Prosor said sarcastically.
U.N.-based diplomats say America’s support for the U.N. Security Council statement may serve as a message to Israel about its rejection of the U.S.-backed Egyptian diplomatic initiative.
Danin suggested that the United States may be seeking to leverage its position by playing on Israeli fears of being left to fend for itself at a United Nations that appears to be universally opposed to the current offensive. "We can be part of this and help you or not," Danin said, summarizing the Obama administration’s likely message to Netanyahu.
A U.N.-based European diplomat said Washington was likely furious over the way Kerry has been publicly denigrated in Israel. It wouldn’t be the first time: In January, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was quoted by the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth as dismissing Kerry’s peacemaking efforts as "obsessive" and "messianic." He later apologized after the State Department blasted his comments as "offensive and inappropriate."
The European diplomat said Washington’s move was "an expression of discontent" and a signal that the United States might be willing to go further in taking action against Israel than before. It was the first time that the U.N. Security Council had taken a formal action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since January 2009, when George W. Bush’s administration abstained on a resolution calling for a "durable" cease-fire to pave the way for Israel’s military withdrawal from Gaza. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States essentially agreed with the goal of that resolution, which was supported by the council’s other 14 members, but that U.N. action threatened to harm mediation efforts in Egypt to resolve the crisis.
The Obama administration has been more reluctant to allow U.N. involvement. In February 2011, Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, cast the administration’s first veto in the Security Council to block the adoption of a Palestinian resolution denouncing Israel’s expansion of Jewish settlements. Later that year, the United States killed off a Palestinian bid for recognition as a state before the Security Council by wielding the threat of another American veto. Indeed, since the Obama administration came into power in 2009, the United States had a perfect record of blocking Arab initiatives on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in the U.N. Security Council.
The Security Council did previously issue a so-called "press statement" urging the parties to abide by a 2012 cease-fire agreement. But according the peculiar parliamentary rules of the Security Council, such statements are not considered formal actions and carry no legal bearing on the parties. Today, Palestine’s U.N. envoy and other Arab diplomats expressed frustration with the council’s slow response to the crisis in Gaza.
Riyad Mansour, the Palestinians’ U.N. envoy, told reporters that he was "disappointed" over the council’s decision to merely support a simple statement rather than a tougher, legally binding resolution proposed several weeks ago by the Palestinians and their Arab allies to ensure the safety of Palestinian civilians.
"We were expecting the Security Council to deal with the issue of providing protection for our people," Mansour said. "They should have adopted a resolution a long time ago to condemn this aggression and to call for this aggression to be stopped immediately."
New York University’s Gowan said such calls are growing increasingly difficult to ignore. "Since taking office in 2009, the Obama administration has tried to avoid handling Israel and Palestine through the United Nations, in contrast to crises with Iran and Syria," Gowan said. "It’s harder for the U.S. to maintain this position after the failure of Kerry’s peace plan and the current violence."