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Stephen M. Walt

A false friend in the White House

Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn’t question Israel’s legitimacy, didn’t declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn’t call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that ...

Last Friday the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution condemning Israel’s continued expansion of settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank. The resolution didn’t question Israel’s legitimacy, didn’t declare that "Zionism is racism," and didn’t call for a boycott or sanctions. It just said that the settlements were illegal and that Israel should stop building them, and called for a peaceful, two-state solution with "secure and recognized borders. The measure was backed by over 120 countries, and 14 members of the security council voted in favor. True to form, only the United States voted no.

There was no strategic justification for this foolish step, because the resolution was in fact consistent with the official policy of every president since Lyndon Johnson. All of those presidents has understood that the settlements were illegal and an obstacle to peace, and each has tried (albeit with widely varying degrees of enthusiasm) to get Israel to stop building them.

Yet even now, with the peace process and the two-state solution flat-lining, the Obama administration couldn’t bring itself to vote for a U.N. resolution that reflected the U.S. government’s own position on settlements. The transparently lame explanation given by U.S. officials was that the security council isn’t the right forum to address this issue. Instead, they claimed that the settlements issue ought to be dealt with in direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians, and that the security council should have nothing to say on the issue.

This position is absurd on at least two grounds. First, the expansion of settlements is clearly an appropriate issue for the security council to consider, given that it is authorized to address  obvious threats to international peace and security. Second, confining this issue to "direct talks" doesn’t make much sense when those talks are going nowhere. Surely the Obama administration recognizes that its prolonged and prodigious effort to get meaningful discussions going have been a complete bust? It is hard to believe that they didn’t recognize that voting "yes" on the resolution might be a much-needed wake-up call for the Israeli government, and thus be a good way to get the peace process moving again? Thus far, all that Obama’s Middle East team has managed to do in two years is to further undermine U.S. credibility as a potential mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, and to dash the early hopes that the United States was serious about "two states for two peoples." And while Obama, Mitchell, Clinton, Ross, and the rest of the team have floundered, the Netanyahu government has continued to evict Palestinian residents from their homes, its bulldozers and construction crews continuing to seize more and more of the land on which the Palestinians hoped to create a state.

Needless to say, the United States is all by its lonesome on this issue. Our fellow democracies — France, Germany, Great Britain, Brazil, South Africa, India, and Colombia — all voted in favor of the resolution, but not the government of the Land of the Free. And it’s not as if Netanyahu deserved to be rewarded at this point, given how consistently he has stiffed Obama and his Middle East team.

For more on this latest sad chapter in the annals of American Middle East diplomacy, see M.J Rosenberg here and here, the Magnes Zionist here and here, and Gideon Levy here.

As these commentators recognize, the real reason for Obama’s misguided decision was the profound influence of the Israel lobby. Indeed, few observers have missed this simple and obvious fact. One can only conclude that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s repeated claims that they are "friends of Israel" and devoted to its security are nothing more than empty, politically expedient rhetoric. Whatever they may say, the policies they are pursuing — including this latest veto — are in fact harmful to Israel’s long-term future. The man who declared in Cairo on June 4, 2009 that a two-state solution was "in the "Israel’s interest, the Palestinians’ interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest" must have changed his mind, because his actions ever since have merely hastened the moment when creating two viable states will be impossible (if that is not already the case). Then remember what former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in 2007, "if the two-state solution fails, Israel will face a South African style struggle for political rights." And "once that happens," he warned, "the state of Israel is finished."

If Obama were a true friend of Israel, in short, he’d be doing whatever he could to keep it from expanding its ruinous occupation and making the Zionist vision unsustainable. And given that Congress remains hopeless on this issue, he could have shown he was a true friend by instructing his U.N. Ambassador, Susan Rice, to vote for the resolution, as a diverse array of foreign policy experts had suggested. He would also have devoted some portion of his first two years in office to explaining to the American people why some "tough love" was needed on both sides (i.e., not just the Palestinians), and he would have recruited America’s democratic allies in a genuine effort to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a fair and stable end. Had he done these things, most Americans would have supported him. Instead, his lame actions are just enabling the occupation, and for the most cynical domestic political reasons (like safeguarding his re-election prospects in 2012). Even worse, he did it at a moment when the Arab world is in ferment, and when the voice of the Arab street is beginning to be heard. But instead of aligning itself with international law, basic principles of justice, and its own stated position, the Obama administration caved. Again.

If the United States hopes to be on the right side of history, it is time to start thinking about what its policy should be when everybody finally acknowledges that "two states for two peoples" is no longer a practical possibility. This is going to happen sooner or later, and anyone who is still advocating for a two-state solution at that point is going to sound like an ignorant fool. Not because of the flaws in that option, but simply because it will be impossible to implement. What alternative solution will the president and secretary of state support then? Ethnic cleansing? A binational, liberal democracy in which all inhabitants of Israel/Palestine have equal civil and political rights? Or permanent apartheid, in the form of disconnected Palestinian Bantustans under de facto Israeli control? That awkward reality may not be apparent while Obama is president (which is probably what he is hoping), but it will be a damning legacy to leave to his successor, as well as a tragedy for two peoples who have already known more than their share.

Postscript: Some readers may think I am being too defeatist here, and they might cite in evidence Bernard Avishai’s New York Times Magazine essay detailing the alleged "near-miss" peace talks between Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in 2008. Avishai’s account portrays the two leaders as close to a deal and suggests that it would not be that hard to resurrect a similar deal today. It’s an interesting article, but there are at least four problems with his optimistic account. First, Olmert was the lamest of lame ducks by 2008, because he was due to be indicted on corruption charges and everyone knew it, so the talks themselves were something of a side-show. Second, even had this not been the case, it is by no means clear that Olmert could have sold the Israeli public on the proposed deal. Third, it is not even clear that the two sides were that close to an agreement, given Olmert’s insistence that Israel could not withdraw from Ariel and Maale Adumim (two settlement blocs that thrust deep inside the West Bank).  Fourth, and probably most important, political trends in Israel are headed the other way (among other things, Avigdor Lieberman wasn’t foreign minister back then), which makes the Olmert/Abbas talks even less relevant. For excellent critical responses to Avishai’s piece, see Noam Sheizaf, Matthew Taylor, and Ilene Cohen.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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