Kerry Tells European Envoys U.N. Action on Palestine Can Wait till Israeli Election
Top U.S. diplomat warns E.U. ambassadors that Security Council action on Palestine will embolden Israeli hardliners
Secretary of State John Kerry has privately told European Union envoys that Washington will not permit the passage of any U.N. Security Council resolution on the Middle East peace process until after Israel’s March elections, according to three diplomats briefed on the meeting.
The move risks heightening U.S. tensions with the Palestinians, who have expressed growing skepticism over Washington’s ability to broker a political settlement with Israel that guarantees the creation of a future Palestinian state. It is also likely to subject European governments to increased domestic criticism over their inability to help advance the Palestinians quest for its own homeland.
Speaking at an annual luncheon with the 28 European Union ambassadors, Kerry cautioned that any action by the U.N. Security Council would strengthen the hands of Israeli hardliners who oppose the peace process. Kerry left open the possibility that the United States might ultimately support some sort of U.N. Security Council resolution that didn’t prejudge the outcome of stalled political negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians. He didn’t offer any details of what that kind of resolution would have to look like.
“Kerry has been very, very clear that for the United States it was not an option to discuss whatever text before the end of the Israeli election,” according to a European diplomat.
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the luncheon was confidential, said that Kerry explained that Israel’s liberal political leaders, Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni, had expressed concern that a Security Council move to pressure Israel on the eve of election would only strengthen the hands of Israeli hardliners, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Naftali Bennett, an implacable foe of a Palestinian state and leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. Netanyahu is also fiercely opposed to the Palestinians effort to secure Security Council backing for its statehood drive.
Kerry said Livni had “told him that such a text imposed by the international community would reinforce Benjamin Netanyahu and the hardliners in Israel,” as well as the hardliners in Palestine, according to the European diplomat.
The message, said another European diplomat, was that U.N. action would “give more impetus to more right-wing parties, that there was a risk this could further embolden the more right-wing forces along the Israeli political spectrum.”
Kerry’s remarks highlight the Obama administration’s delicate balancing act when it comes to its tense relationship with the Israeli government. On the one hand, senior administration officials make little attempt to hide the personal dislike between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama or their sharp disagreements on issues ranging from the peace process to Iran. On the other hand, Kerry and other top policymakers have tried to avoid saying or doing anything that could be seen as meddling in the Israeli election in an effort to oust Netanyahu and replace him with a more centrist prime minister.
“Secretary Kerry made clear in private as he has in public that we don’t think any steps should be taken that would interfere with the Israeli election — that’s what he conveyed earlier this week,” a senior State Department official said in response to a request for comment on his remarks to the European envoys. “He continues to discuss with foreign partners the options for advancing the goal we all share of preventing a downward spiral of events on the ground and creating conditions for resumption of negotiations on a two state solution.”
Kerry’s Thursday remarks came on a day in which the Palestinians’ U.N. envoy, Riyad Mansour, submitted a resolution demanding the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Palestinians lands by the end of 2017.
The U.S. has made clear to its counterparts that the Palestinian initiative was unacceptable. But Washington said it was open to discussing the adoption of some sort of resolution that reinforced peace efforts. Such a measure would almost certainly lack the strict deadline set out in the Palestinian measure.
With the U.S.-brokered peace talks stalled, European governments have come under mounting domestic pressure to do something at the U.N. to advance the Palestinians’ drive for statehood. France, which is seeking a broader diplomatic role in the Middle East, has proposed an alternative draft Security Council resolution which calls for the resumption of immediate political talks between the Israelis and Palestinians with the aim of concluding a comprehensive settlement within two years.
The United States and Israel oppose the imposition of hard deadlines. But the United States participated in a closed-door meeting Thursday in New York on the French draft with French, British and Jordanian envoys.
Diplomats familiar with those talks say that the United States has been willing to engage in general discussions about the possible role for the Security Council role but that it has been unwilling so far to engage in substantive negotiations over the French text. Those discussions may continue next week and beyond, but there “is no sense of urgency,” according to one diplomat.
Some diplomats expressed concern that the U.S. is merely engaging in stalling tactics. The United States already convinced the Palestinians to put off a decision to move ahead with its resolution in the weeks leading up the U.S. midterm elections last November. The United States has provided little clarity on what it would be willing to support in the Security Council following the Israeli election. Even the U.S. commitment to consider Security Council action after the election has been frustratingly “vague,” according to a European diplomat.
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Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch