With Violence Surging in Israel, Washington Retreats From New Diplomatic Push at Turtle Bay

The administration had told its allies it was ready to pressure Israel at the U.N. toward a peace deal. But the White House is now backpedaling from its threat.

The United Nations Security Council meets on Ukraine May 2, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York. Russia warned Ukraine of "catastrophic consequences" unless it halted a military operation against pro-Russian gunmen while Western powers rounded on Moscow at emergency UN talks.   AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA        (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
The United Nations Security Council meets on Ukraine May 2, 2014 at UN headquarters in New York. Russia warned Ukraine of "catastrophic consequences" unless it halted a military operation against pro-Russian gunmen while Western powers rounded on Moscow at emergency UN talks. AFP PHOTO/Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Seven months ago, frustrated by what he saw as Israel’s retreat from its commitment to a two-state solution, U.S. President Barack Obama warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would “reevaluate” U.S. policy on Israel and the Middle East peace process. Behind the scenes, senior U.S. diplomats hinted to European allies they were prepared, as a pressure tactic, to defy Israel at the United Nations by restarting talks on the creation of a Palestinian state.

But now, even as violence surges in the Middle East, the United States is sticking to its traditional stance that the U.N. should butt out of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, is resuming what top American diplomats have done for generations: engage both sides in frequent trips to the region and try to prod Israeli and Palestinian leaders into direct talks for a peace deal that few believe will be achieved anytime soon.

In recent weeks, U.N.-based diplomats and outside observers say Washington has shown little interest in enlisting the U.N. Security Council to press the parties to return to talks that abruptly fell apart in April 2014. The longtime U.S. policy toward the Middle East, they say, has not changed.

“We don’t see any evidence of any new policy,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “If there was a review, they must have decided that things were OK.”

Former Kerry advisor Ilan Goldenberg cited “a genuine process of reassessment, but I think they came to the conclusion that the options are not good.”

“In the aftermath of the Iran deal, there is no interest among Democrats to have another fight with Israel,” said Goldenberg, now director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “This administration would like to get through next year without another major confrontation with Israel.”

The episode is seen by some Arab states as the latest in a string of disappointments with how Obama has approached the region, as Arab leaders believe Washington has neglected the interests of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and with regard to Iran, the diplomat said.

But they feel particularly let down by what they see as the Obama administration’s backtracking on its pledge to review its Middle East peace policy, an Arab diplomat told Foreign Policy.

“He was bluffing,” the diplomat said of Obama.

“Nobody is talking about a resolution in the U.N. Security Council now,” he added. “There is not even a letter from the president outlining the parameters [of a possible resolution].”

The cautious American diplomatic strategy has fed a deep sense of frustration at the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has pleaded with the Security Council to try to contain a surge in violence over the last month that has killed at least 60 people, including nine Israelis and 49 Palestinians.

The latest crisis erupted in mid-September, when Palestinians and Israelis clashed at a holy site in Jerusalem that is revered by both Muslims and Jews. Citing security concerns, Israel restricted access to the site, fueling fears that Palestinians would be blocked from the place known to Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.

The situation has grown increasingly vicious in recent weeks, with Palestinians assaulting random Israeli civilians with knives and screwdrivers and Israeli security forces resorting to live fire to quell anti-Israel protests.

At an Oct. 13 luncheon in New York, Ban scolded Security Council diplomats, including U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, for doing too little to contain the violence.

During the lunch, Ban complained that the Middle East peace process had collapsed three times since he began his first term as secretary-general in January 2007. He described himself as the only one at the U.N. to talk forcefully about the recent crisis — but that he had been met with silence from the Security Council.

“What are you going to do about it?” a diplomat who was there recalled him saying. “You guys have been completely silent.”

Ban has also sought to spur discussion about the possibility of setting up some sort of international protection force in disputed areas to safeguard civilians. Earlier this week, Ban gave the council an internal U.N. paper outlining cases dating back to the 1920s when the U.N. or the League of Nations set up protection forces. But Ban told reporters Friday he had stopped short of recommending that the council authorize such a force for the current crisis.

Ban has calibrated his tough talk with praise for Kerry’s latest efforts to broker a deal between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But Ban’s closed-door remarks appear calculated, in part, to pressure the United States into backing down from its traditional resistance against a Security Council role in peace negotiations.

In the summer of 2013, Kerry brokered the start of an intensive round of diplomatic talks between Israel and Palestine, aimed at cinching a final peace agreement.

But the talks collapsed nine months later, contributing to deep skepticism about the prospects of achieving a Palestinian state. In the run-up to Israeli elections last March, Netanyahu infuriated the White House by proclaiming in an interview that he would never see a Palestinian state under his watch.

Doubts are growing among Washington’s allies that U.S.-brokered peace talks will ever lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.

France, which is seeking a larger role in the Middle East peace process, has been pressing for much of this year to persuade the United States to support plans to adopt a Security Council resolution that would outline the basic parameters of a political settlement. The proposal also would set a deadline for the parties to reach an agreement.

Additionally, Paris is seeking to end Washington’s relative diplomatic monopoly in Middle East negotiations and wants to convene an international conference to give other states, including France, a more influential role in the peace process.

Earlier this year, Kerry and other U.S. officials assured France and other European powers that the Obama administration was prepared to consider the possible Security Council resolution when the time was ripe. But the United States has repeatedly put off deliberations, first citing the need to await the Israeli election — and the subsequent selection of a governing cabinet — and then whether an agreement would be reached for a nuclear deal with Iran and a congressional vote on that pact.

Washington also snubbed a more recent French initiative to deploy international observers on the Temple Mount to help ease tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Israel and Jordan, which have joint responsibility for managing the holy sites, were also opposed to the initiative.

“Over recent months, we have been concerned to hear the ongoing repetition of a defeatist narrative that is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling: The conditions are not right; the parties are not ready,” New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully told the Security Council on Thursday. “But if the conditions are not right for direct talks, then surely it is the council’s role to try to create the right conditions. If the parties are not ready, then surely the council should tell them to get ready, help them get ready, and give them a time frame within which to be ready.”

McCully said his government was willing to put forward some ideas to prod the Security Council — which passed its last resolution on Israel-Palestine six years ago — on a diplomatic strategy. He said the council could call for a cessation of violence and affirm its commitment to a two-state solution.

The council, he added, should explicitly designate itself in a supporting role to promote a political settlement through direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. If the two sides won’t talk, McCully said, then the council should “mandate a course of action.”

But U.N. diplomats say these ideas will never fly without U.S. support.

U.S. officials have little confidence that Security Council action would help reduce the violence in the region, and Kerry this week embarked on a new, intensive round of shuttle diplomacy.

After a four-hour meeting Thursday with Netanyahu in Berlin, Kerry said that he was cautiously optimistic there might be a way to reduce tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis, Reuters reported. During the meeting, Netanyahu agreed with Kerry “on the need to stop incitement, reduce tension, and restore calm,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.

A senior administration official said that Kerry has been engaged in intensive diplomatic efforts with key regional players to reduce tensions. The official said that Obama will meet with Netanyahu at the Oval Office in November, where they will discuss Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and press for progress on a two-state solution.

“The U.S. has been closely coordinating with key international partners, including the U.N., on our efforts to date, including at the meeting of the [Middle East] Quartet … that Secretary Kerry participated in today in Vienna,” he said. “The U.S. continues to look to Israel and the Palestinian Authority to demonstrate — through policies and actions — a genuine commitment to a two-state solution.”

Kerry met Friday with members of the so-called Middle East Quartet, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, European Union foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, and U.N. Middle East special envoy Nickolay Mladenov. Following the meeting, the Quartet issued a statement condemning the violence and calling on Israelis and Palestinians to show “maximum restraint” and desist from “provocative rhetoric and actions.”

It also called on Israel and Jordan to ensure access to Jews and Muslims at the Jerusalem religious site. This weekend, Kerry will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan to try to build on the Quartet’s pleas.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders, meanwhile, appear to be talking past one another.

Speaking Thursday before the Security Council, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki renewed a call for a U.N. protection force for Palestinians, saying the 15-nation council cannot “justify sitting on the sidelines while we face the threat of this conflict spiraling out of control.”

“The council has remained paralyzed to the grave detriment of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples and region as a whole, with the conflict compounded with each passing day and peace and security remaining painfully elusive,” Malki said.

He said the international community needs to devote its attention not on the latest surge of Palestinian violence, but on “the continued Israeli foreign occupation of Palestine.”

Israel’s new U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, criticized the international community’s effort to seek an even-handed diplomatic approach that he said equated the Israeli government to Palestinian criminals.

“The place where the status quo needs to change is here at the U.N.,” he asked. “The U.N. must end its usual practice of calling on both sides to show restraint and state clearly: There is one side that is instigating a wave of terror.”

“Israel will not agree to any international presence on the Temple Mount,” Danon said. “If the international community wishes to be constructive, it should focus on ending the incitement.”

FP chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce contributed to this story.

Photo credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, Oct. 26, 2015: Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. An early version of this story mistakenly said that Ibish was a fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, where he previously worked. Additionally, the Malaysian deputy foreign minister incorrectly attributed the quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” to Albert Einstein during an Oct. 22, 2015, U.N. Security Council meeting. There is no evidence Einstein ever made the remark, which is frequently attributed to him.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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