Obama fulfils his prophecy on Israeli settlements

The way the White House tells it, the United States had no choice.

For eight years, President Barack Obama had been pleading with Israel to stop building settlements. But they did not listen. So reluctantly, the President instructed his United Nations ambassador to abstain from a Security Council resolution that affirmed for the first time in 36 years that every Jewish home in East Jerusalem and the West Bank was a "flagrant violation of international law".

Mr Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser, whined about this last Friday after the vote. "There's a huge record on this, and I think it's very unfair and inaccurate to suggest that somehow this was an outcome that we sought," he said. "If it was an outcome that we sought, we would have done this long ago." I do not believe him. Mr Obama's decision looks entirely premeditated.

Let's start with what the Israelis are saying. After the vote, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would be sharing information with the Donald Trump transition team that proves how the US lobbied other countries behind the scenes to support the resolution. He has not made this public, but Israeli officials tell me it is based in part on what many Arab envoys told Israeli diplomats in private.

We also know, because it has been publicly reported, that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about this resolution last month with his counterpart in New Zealand, whose envoy introduced the resolution. As writer Liel Leibowitz pointed out this week in Tablet magazine, this is particularly rich given New Zealand's own unsavoury history of driving natives off its land.

Another piece of supporting evidence is that this kind of UN action was included in a 2015 policy memo drafted after Mr Netanyahu was re-elected and it promised supporters there would be no Palestinian state while he was in power. Mr Netanyahu reversed himself after the victory.


Mr Obama (right) at a meeting with Mr Netanyahu in September. Mr Obama has warned that Israel's decision to keep building on land it captured in the Six-Day War would lead to its international isolation. PHOTO: REUTERS

But the Obama administration was nonetheless determined to punish him. As White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said last year: "We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don't raise questions about the Prime Minister's commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations."

The Israelis themselves certainly saw it coming. Mr Michael Oren, a Knesset member and former Israeli ambassador to the US, told me on Monday that the Knesset held in-depth hearings to prepare for what Mr Obama would do to Israel between the Nov 8 election and the Jan 20 inauguration. "We were not surprised because I know the world view, I know the President's determination," Mr Oren said. "He doesn't give up on things."

Then there is the timing. Perhaps Mr Obama never wanted to have done this "a long time ago", as Mr Rhodes said. But if he had, he would have faced serious blowback within his own party. Scores of Democrats released statements last Friday expressing bewilderment about how the US abstention would advance the peace process.

 
 
 

Politically, the resolution would have been a gift to Republicans before an election. Imagine the campaign commercial saying Mr Obama would not stop genocide in Syria but makes Jewish homes in Jerusalem illegal.

Mr Obama himself has been attuned to the sensibilities of the pro-Israel community in election years. This year, he pushed to complete a 10-year agreement to extend US military aid so that it was signed in the fall.

All of this gets to the strongest reason why it is best to take Mr Rhodes' protestations with a heap of salt. The Obama foreign policy narrative is often at odds with his real foreign policy. To illustrate this, in April last year, Mr Rhodes told CNN that the Iran nuclear agreement would require Iran to submit to "any time, anywhere inspections" of its nuclear facilities. By July , when the deal was finally signed, that promise was no longer operative. Instead, the Iranians were able to limit access for UN inspectors to the point where the Iranians themselves collected the soil samples.

With this UN vote, we see the same pattern. Announcing the decision to abstain from the vote, US Ambassador Samantha Power said: "Our vote today is fully in line with the bipartisan history of how American presidents have approached both the issue and the body." Mr Obama's supporters have repeated this since Friday: Every US president since 1968 has urged Israel to stop building settlements; past presidents have not vetoed other Security Council resolutions critical of Israel.

That is true. It is also deceptive. The last president who allowed the Security Council to declare that all of East Jerusalem was occupied territory was Mr Jimmy Carter in 1980. This was before the Oslo Peace accords. This was before the modern US-Israel security relationship. This was at a time when US presidents did not say that Palestinians should have their own state.

Since the early 1990s, presidents have upheld the view that the status of Jerusalem should be negotiated between the parties and not adjudicated at the UN. This was Mr Obama's position in 2011 when the US vetoed a similar resolution. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, then President George W. Bush even promised Israel that the US recognised the validity of some Jewish neighbourhoods and population centres in and around Jerusalem. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas privately agreed to swopping Jewish population centres for other concessions in negotiations with Mr Netanyahu's predecessor Ehud Olmert.

Mr Obama abandoned Mr Bush's commitment in his first year in office. Then in 2011, he said US policy would no longer consider legitimate any existing Jewish settlements outside Israel's pre-1967 borders unless ratified by peace negotiations. Last Friday, after he was no longer running for office and after Americans had voted in the presidential election, he allowed the UN to make his policy a matter of international law.

Some might say this was a long time coming. Since he came into office, Mr Obama has warned that Israel's decision to keep building on land it captured in the Six-Day War of 1967 would lead to its international isolation. He just never bothered to tell us that he would abet that isolation as his presidency came to a close.

BLOOMBERG VIEW

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2016, with the headline 'Obama fulfils his prophecy on Israeli settlements'. Print Edition | Subscribe