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What can the U.S. do?

by Michael Lame, posted on April 22, 2011

“I know that the President will be speaking in greater detail about America’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks.” So said Secretary of State Clinton earlier this month to the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. She went on to reaffirm America’s commitment to “a negotiated two-state solution” and to reiterate the indispensable party theory so beloved of American diplomats:

“And while it is a truism that only the parties themselves can make the hard choices necessary for peace, there is no substitute for continued active American leadership. And the President and I are committed to that.”

The appropriate role of American leadership in addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worth re-thinking. In the coming weeks, when President Obama speaks to the world about the Middle East, what can he say, beyond peace platitudes expressed in soaring rhetoric, that could really make a difference? What can the U.S. government do that would be genuinely useful in helping to resolve the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

First of all, the administration could publicly communicate to the Palestinians in no uncertain terms 1) that it opposes Palestine’s efforts to become a U.N. member prior to reaching an agreement on borders with Israel, and 2) that it will veto any membership resolution which comes before the Security Council absent such an agreement. As Susan Rice, America’s ambassador to the U.N., told the Security Council this week,

Negotiations between the parties remain the only path to a solution that resolves all issues and establishes a sovereign state of Palestine alongside a secure state of Israel as a key part of a comprehensive peace among Israel and all of its neighbors.” [Emphasis added.]

Secondly, administration efforts to get the parties back to the negotiation table in order to reach a grand bargain should be shelved for the time being.

George Mitchell should be allowed to retire, with the thanks of the president and the nation for his energetic though ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of Middle East peace.

An agreement on final status issues arrived at through bilateral negotiations isn’t going to happen any time soon unless Netanyahu and Abbas suddenly and uncharacteristically get serious about cutting a deal. There is scant evidence that a negotiated peace agreement is high on either one’s priority list. Both like to posture as if they are anxious to return to negotiations, just as soon as the other side meets certain criteria which they know full well the other side will not agree to. (Abbas wants a complete cessation of Israeli settlement activity beyond the green line and Netanyahu wants Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.)

Thirdly, it’s time for the administration to look for individually important issues that it can successfully address with the Israelis, the Palestinians, or both. That we can’t accomplish everything right now should not stop us from trying to accomplish something. And doing nothing would only feed into the negative direction in which the conflict is now headed.

Downward Spiral

Why should the U.S. President and his staff, the Secretary of State and her staff, the National Security Council, and various other federal agencies continue to invest so much time and effort in attempts to resolve a conflict that many have argued is not currently “ripe” for a solution? The reason is that, politically speaking, Israelis, Palestinians, and Americans are all trapped in a lose-lose-lose downward spiral.

Israel’s global standing takes hit after hit for its treatment of Palestinians. What passes in Israel for the best diplomatic news in months is Richard Goldstone changing his mind.

The West Bank’s economic strides forward and the PA’s governmental maturation are not matched by domestic political reforms or by diplomatic progress at reconciling with Hamas or reaching a peace agreement with Israel. The economic development or stagnation of the West Bank and Gaza remain under Israel’s control. Although the “Arab spring” has not yet reached the Palestinians, if it does, it is unclear whether the object of Palestinian demonstrations will be Israel, the PA, or Hamas. None of them has legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians.

People who care about Israelis and/or Palestinians must be concerned about the two peoples’ uncertain future and about the continuing deterioration of the relationship between the two communities. The worse it gets, the more likely it becomes that there will be further rounds of lethal violence.

The downward trajectory for the U.S. in regards to Israelis and Palestinians is due to the vast discrepancy between the world’s expectations and America’s performance. During the last several administrations, the United States has promised much and delivered little regarding “the Holy Land”, a matter of great concern to key constituencies at home and key allies abroad.

Although American influence on Israel and on the Palestinian Authority has its limits, no other outside player – not the UN, the EU, the Arab League, or the Quartet – has a relationship with both sides anywhere near as strong or as consequential as America’s. It may not be indispensable, but the U.S. has the power to do great good or great harm to both parties. Apart from the strategic benefits that could accrue to the United States by playing a central role in the resolution of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, American credibility is at stake. For all these reasons, the United States should continue to look for ways to resolve the conflict in whole or in part.

All parties have failed

Currently we are faced with a situation of failure by all parties. The Netanyahu government, which has been in office for over two years now, has failed to offer any compelling vision of coexistence or concrete steps towards a solution. The Abbas government has likewise failed to move towards a negotiated peace with the Netanyahu government. Abbas and Netanyahu have only met a handful of times, in contrast to Abbas and Olmert, who held more than thirty sessions together.

The leaders of Israel and Palestine should insist on meeting each other every week, whether they are addressing final status issues or not. The number of friction points, large and small, as well as the number of opportunities for improving relations and improving lives, ought to be sufficient to warrant regular, frequent, problem-solving sessions at the highest levels of the two governments. Shame on both leaders for their fecklessness.

The Obama administration has also been a miserable failure in its Middle East policy. As Yossi Alpher, a keen observer of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years, wrote earlier this week:

“US President Barack Obama has made nothing but mistakes in the Israel-Arab context since taking office. A policy of “engagement” and gentle persuasion doesn’t work in Damascus, Jerusalem or Ramallah. Peace envoy George Mitchell’s fabled patience is not the right tactic. You don’t give presidential “vision” speeches in Cairo and Ankara without giving one in Jerusalem. The settlement freeze demand had no chance of succeeding…”

Given this track record of all-around failure, who or what could break the logjam?

Breaking the Logjam

An Israeli-Palestinian deal on even a single issue of importance could make a huge difference. Arguments are always raised, by one side or the other, against more interim agreements or against agreements on anything less than everything. Especially for those who hope to arrange trade-offs between different issues, an attempt to resolve a single issue removes a source of bargaining leverage for addressing other issues. For example, some hope to trade Israeli concessions on Jerusalem in exchange for Palestinian concessions on the right of return.

This trade-off notion is based on a deep misunderstanding of the parties to the conflict. There is no monolithic Palestinian community which stands in opposition to a monolithic Israeli community. Instead, there are multiple interest groups on each side, in competition with one another for the priority of their issues.

For many Palestinians living in Lebanon, in conditions of statelessness and severe economic restrictions, the right of return is profoundly important, in practice as well as in principle. It is of far less concern to those West Bankers who were never refugees.

Jerusalem is of great symbolic significance to millions of Palestinians and Israelis, but whether and how to divide the city are issues of far more immediate concern to the Jews and Arabs who live in Jerusalem than to Palestinians in Gaza or to Israelis in Haifa and Tel Aviv.

The Palestinians in Lebanon will not be helped by trading away their concerns to benefit the Palestinians of Jerusalem. Each problem requires its own solution.

What issues, if any, can be addressed individually, without waiting for a comprehensive end-of-conflict agreement? Even if the solution to a single issue or sub-issue cannot be agreed to between the parties, perhaps unilateral action by one party can change the trajectory of the relationship between the parties in a mutually beneficial way. We can argue whether Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza was positive or negative in its long-term impact on the conflict, but it certainly altered the political landscape.

I invite readers to consider which issues, friction points, injustices, or counter-productive behaviors could be addressed unilaterally by the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans or others. Alternatively, on which individual issue might the parties reach agreement, even if an all-encompassing settlement of outstanding issues is much further off?

In my next article, I will suggest areas in which Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians might look to generate positive movement towards resolving discrete issues.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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September at the U.N.

by Michael Lame, posted on April 12, 2011

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced that his government will submit a report to a committee of the European Union in Brussels on Wednesday, April 13, showing the Palestinian Authority’s readiness for statehood. In September, Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas plan to present Palestine’s request for official membership in the United Nations. The prospective new member will claim all of Gaza, all of the West Bank, and that part of Jerusalem east of the 1949 armistice line, thereby rolling Israel back to its borders before the ’67 war, at least on paper.

Admission to the United Nations

The UN charter specifies that for a country to join the UN, the Security Council must vote to recommend membership to the General Assembly which, in turn, must approve the membership resolution with a two-thirds majority vote.

On March 4, 1949, the Security Council voted to recommend Israel for membership by a vote of 9 in favor, 1 opposed (Egypt), and 1 abstention (U.K.). On May 11, 1949, the General Assembly voted to accept Israel’s membership. 37 voted for the measure, 12 voted against, and 9 abstained. The U.K. could have blocked Israel’s membership with a veto in the Security Council, but it chose not to.

When the PA-backed resolution for recommendation of membership comes before the Security Council this fall, the U.S. can veto it. If it does and if the specified U.N. Charter rules are followed, the measure will die there. It will not proceed to a General Assembly vote, where the Palestinians’ popularity would easily guarantee it two-thirds of the UN’s 192 voting members.

Even if the U.S. vetoes the membership resolution in the Security Council, an alternative route for securing U.N. membership may still be open to the Palestinians. According to the language of General Assembly resolution 377 – “Uniting for Peace” – adopted on November 3, 1950, during the Korean War:

“[I]f the Security Council, because of lack of unanimity of the permanent members, fails to exercise its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security in any case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression, the General Assembly shall consider the matter immediately with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures…to maintain or restore international peace and security.”

In other words, when the Security Council permanent members can’t agree on a matter of critical importance, the General Assembly can act in its stead. A GA resolution lacks the force of law that is generally attached to one issued by the UNSC, and a GA resolution takes the form of a recommendations. Still, its impact should not be underestimated. Indeed, one may recall that the hotly contested 1947 partition plan – U.N. Resolution 181 – calling for the division of Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state, was voted on in the General Assembly, not the Security Council, and that it too took the form of a recommendation.

Is Palestine a state?

Membership in the United Nations, according to Article 4 of its charter, is open to all “peace-loving states which accept the obligations contained in the present Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able and willing to carry out these obligations.”

Although membership is restricted to “states”, the U.N. Charter does not define what constitutes a sovereign state. The generally agreed-upon criteria of statehood include a permanent population and defined territory over which control is exercised by a government capable of conducting relations with other governments.

Is Palestine a state? It fits some of the criteria. It has diplomatic relations at various levels with over a hundred countries. A Palestinian government rules over the land and people of Gaza. A Palestinian government, albeit a different one, rules over various villages, towns, and cities in Area A of the West Bank.

On the other hand, two rival governments, rather than a single undisputed one, claim to represent Palestine. Neither Palestinian government controls all the territory it claims – none of Jerusalem or Area C in the West Bank, both of which are controlled by Israel. Nor is it clear whether the Palestinian population includes the half million Jews living in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. But such real and significant on-the-ground problems would probably not deter most Security Council or General Assembly members from considering Palestine to be a sovereign state and welcoming it into the club.

Should the U.S. support Palestine’s membership in the U.N.?

The Obama administration does not look forward to the prospect of wielding its Security Council veto power in support of Israel for the second time this year. Only last September, in his speech before the General Assembly, Obama stated that “those who speak on behalf of Palestinian self-government should help the Palestinian Authority politically and financially, and in doing so help the Palestinians build the institutions of their state.”

Prime Minister Fayyad, an ex-International Monetary Fund official, is generally credited with having done a fine job of institution-building in the West Bank and bringing greater transparency to the PA’s financial operations.

Obama envisioned aloud that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

That statement seemed to condition American support for Palestinian U.N. membership on a prior peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Yet less than six months remain before the opening of the next annual session of the General Assembly. That leaves barely enough time for Israeli and Palestinian political leaders to decide to restart negotiations (if they impose no pre-conditions), determine a venue, and agree on an agenda.

An exceedingly rosy best-case scenario would see the working out of a mutually-agreed-upon set of principles by September, but certainly not a peace deal resolving all the final status issues – Jerusalem, refugees, borders, settlements, security, water. That will require months and months of diligent work by multiple committees.

Camp David III?

The only way to shorten that cycle is to launch intensive sessions at the highest levels of government. Camp David III, however, is not in the offing, for several reasons:

1) Camp David II, starring Arafat, Barak, and Clinton, was a bust, which everyone remembers. When the reviewers pan a film and the investors lose money, Hollywood usually doesn’t make a sequel;

2) Camp David II’s failure led to the outbreak of the second intifada, far bloodier than the first. The risks of failure this time could be even higher;

3) Given how fast events are currently moving in the Middle East and how much attention they demand, neither Abbas, Netanyahu, nor Obama can afford the weeks of dedicated time required to reach a deal;

4) Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu show any eagerness to begin intensive negotiations with each other, especially not when mediated by Obama, who is not currently trusted by either side;

5) Unless and until Hamas and Fatah reconcile, Abbas cannot speak for Gaza and therefore does not represent the Palestinian community as a whole;

6) A Camp David summit is not Obama’s style. He prefers to have others negotiate most of the way and then come in towards the end to seal the deal. But the essence of a Camp David approach to Middle East peacemaking is for the president to be personally immersed in the process, moving the Israeli and Palestinian leaders along and holding their hands each step of the way;

7) The president just announced his re-election bid. High-stakes gambling on Middle East peace is rarely a winner with the voters, even when one succeeds. Carter skillfully managed the first Camp David talks between Begin and Sadat all the way through to a breakthrough conclusion, yet he failed to leverage that historic accomplishment into a second term in the White House.

Although presidents Bush and Obama both have spoken of their commitment to Palestinian statehood, they also emphasized that this destination can only be reached by following the path of Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations. Given the administration’s emphasis on direct talks as the key to resolving the conflict, a Palestinian end-run around the White House to the United Nations runs the risk of alienating the president even more than the anti-settlement resolution already did earlier this year.

How a state comes into existence

States do not exist because they have a right to exist. They come into existence and maintain their existence by force or by agreement or by a combination of the two. The Palestinians lack the military might to bring their state into existence by force of arms. In order to establish a sovereign functioning state, the Palestinians need the agreement of their immediate neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, and Israel – far more than they need the support of the general membership of the United Nations. If those three neighboring states, collectively or individually, oppose a new Palestinian state, they can cause it enormous difficulties.

Will Palestine’s membership in the United Nations increase or decrease the likelihood of reaching a deal with Israel? Wide gaps separate the two parties’ positions on the key issues, while Israel’s relative strength continues to far exceed Palestine’s. The Palestinians, therefore, are looking for additional leverage. They think that international recognition might provide it. They believe that even more pressure can be brought to bear on Israel by efforts to delegitimize and ostracize it. Can their strategy work?

The Israelis know what the Palestinians are up to, and so do the Americans. Netanyahu has already threatened to take unspecified unilateral actions against the PA if it seeks membership in the U.N prior to reaching an agreement with Israel. This is a risky and unpredictable game in which both sides can severely damage each other. There will definitely be losers if they play it out, but it is unclear if either side will win anything of significance.

International acceptance and legitimacy are obviously of great importance to both Israel and Palestine. But the situation on the ground needs to be addressed directly and locally. Activity in New York and Washington is no substitute for communication in Gaza City, Jerusalem, and Ramallah.

Should the United States support U.N. membership for a new state of Palestine? No, not until Israelis and Palestinians have resolved the key issues between them, if not to their mutual satisfaction, then at least to their mutual consent. Only when they have a deal between themselves will we know for sure that such a deal can be reached. And if it can’t be reached, then premature Palestinian statehood will likely result in exacerbated conflict and a higher body count.

I remain skeptical that the differences on Jerusalem, refugees, security, and the other key issues between the parties can be resolved. Regarding security, for example, the Israeli minimum requirements currently exceed the maximum that the Palestinians can tolerate. If the Israelis insist on the right of hot pursuit, overflight rights, control of the electro-magnetic spectrum, listening posts, and border controls, no self-respecting Palestinian will be willing to sign off on these severe limitations to their sovereignty. But absent such safeguards, no Israeli political leader accountable for the safety of Israeli civilians will sign a peace agreement.

I genuinely hope I’m wrong in my assessment of the incompatibility of Palestinian statehood with Israeli statehood, but to know for sure if the gaps can be closed between the two sides, negotiations must be held. If the negotiations prove successful, then drinks for everyone! But if they fail again, then the world should be told openly – not through WikiLeaks – what the final positions of each side were on all issues discussed. We need to know if a two-state solution can be arrived at through negotiations, and we don’t know that yet. If it can’t be, then either it must be imposed, against the will of the parties, or a new solution must be found.

Before Palestine becomes a state, let’s find out if Palestine and Israel can co-exist.

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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Obama’s First UN Veto

by Michael Lame, posted on Feb. 23, 2011

After another week of demonstrations, violent and otherwise, across the Middle East, everyone is making predictions as to which regimes will survive and which will fall. Having watched much of Muammar Gaddafi’s tour de farce on Al Jazeera yesterday, my own conclusion is that Libya’s leader lives in a parallel universe which is not inhabited by the Libyan people. He seems to believe that he and his country still exist in the “glory days” when he first seized power in 1969, long before the birth of most Libyans alive today. For what it’s worth, I predict that within a week Gaddafi will be in exile or in the morgue.

While much of the world’s attention has been focused on Arab revolts the last few days, another drama played itself out in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and New York.

So far this year, the UN Security Council has passed two resolutions, one in January and another in February, regarding the deteriorating situation in the Ivory Coast. No resolutions have been discussed or voted on regarding the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt or the unrest in Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, or Iran. The UNSC today condemned human rights violations in Libya in a press release – a far weaker form of communication than a resolution. Only one Middle East issue has come up for a UNSC vote in 2011. Last Friday, a Lebanon-sponsored, P.A.-backed anti-Israeli-settlement resolution received 14 votes in favor and one against, but that one was a veto wielded by the United States. In the wake of the vote, the media has focused on the U.S. as the odd-man-out on the Council, on speculation as to why it vetoed the resolution, and on possible anti-American repercussions in the Middle East.

Arabs and other friends of Palestine, as well as the Jewish peace camp in Israel and America have all criticized the U.S. government for vetoing the resolution. Given what an awkward spot the resolution put the Obama administration in, I suggest that attention should be directed to the failure of American diplomacy to prevent the resolution from coming to a vote at all. This failure to coordinate between Washington and Ramallah is evidence of a serious decline in America’s relationship with the PA.

Part of the problem is that Obama, Clinton, and their teams sent mixed messages to the Palestinians for a couple of months about America’s likely response to the resolution. The language of diplomacy can sometimes be too subtle. Would the U.S. vote yes, no, or abstain? Those questions swirled around the resolution for some time without a clear answer. Why did the uncertainty continue? Perhaps because there was genuine uncertainty and debate within the White House and the State Department. Perhaps because the administration hoped to reshape or postpone the resolution without having to publicly declare its opposition.

It has been reported that the night before the vote, President Obama spent 50 minutes on the phone with President Abbas trying to convince him to withdraw the draft resolution. Even on the day of the vote, Secretary Clinton pleaded with Abbas not to proceed.

Would the PA have continued to push for a vote if Obama or Clinton had stated categorically that the U.S. would veto a resolution that declared the settlements illegal? (No sitting U.S. president other than Jimmy Carter has ever declared the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, east Jerusalem, or Gaza to be “illegal” or “unlawful”, though several presidents have called them “unhelpful” or “illegitimate”. Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, specifically stated that the settlements are “not illegal”.)

The U.S. provides hundreds of millions of dollars of direct aid to the P.A. every year. Hundreds of millions more are distributed by USAID to groups and projects in Gaza and the West Bank. In 2009 and again in 2010, the U.S. gave more than $200 million annually to UNRWA to house, feed, educate, and provide health care and other social services for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

With all this money flowing from Washington to benefit Palestinians, one might think that the U.S. would have a bit of pull with the PA. The situation is not really analogous to the US’s relationship with Israel. After all, Israel has become an economic powerhouse that could survive and continue to thrive even if the U.S. were to stop providing it with three billion dollars of annual military assistance. But the PA, without U.S. support, would have to make up that financial shortfall from other external sources or collapse. Perhaps the PA calculates that it has the US over a barrel. If the US withdraws its monetary support and the PA does collapse, the ensuing chaos will be detrimental to American, Israeli, and Palestinian interests.

Once again, Palestinians and Israelis have thumbed their noses at the U.S. What should America do? First of all, it must get its own policy planning house in order. For two years, Obama, Clinton, and Mitchell have failed repeatedly in their attempts to restart and maintain serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Of course, the Bush team failed too. More of the same is unlikely to meet with a better outcome. The administration needs to come up with a new set of goals, a new strategy, and new plans for dealing with Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given the list of critical matters currently on its plate, the administration may even want to consider whether to downgrade the high priority it has placed on addressing this conflict.

Secondly and more controversially, even though recent American diplomatic efforts have been misguided, those efforts have been periodically undermined by the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. Should there not be consequences? Given the dire condition of the American economy and the unsustainable trajectory of the national debt, expenditures that don’t provide obvious benefits to America and Americans need to be either justified or reduced. Should we continue to give hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to supposed allies who embarrass our government and diminish America’s standing in the world?

The PA pushed its resolution, despite the fact that at some point before the vote was taken it knew the US would veto it. That veto endangers America’s position in the Middle East at a time of great volatility in the region. Since the PA was aware of the damage it would cause to America, its decision to force the vote at the Security Council must be considered an unfriendly act. From a Palestinian perspective, it may also be considered a patriotic act, but one which nevertheless damaged the U.S.

In a similar though not identical fashion, the Israeli government’s refusal to heed America’s call for a complete settlement freeze also damaged America’s standing in the region. The Netanyahu government’s initial decision not to impose a complete freeze and its subsequent decision not to extend the temporary partial freeze may be justified from an Israeli center-right perspective, but these decisions made America appear weak, not just regionally but globally.

These actions of Netanyahu and Abbas in going against the will of the U.S. administration provide an opportunity for America to show its displeasure with both of its competing Middle Eastern clients, Israel and Palestine. Both have embarrassed the United States in the eyes of the world and both should pay for it.

Why? Because the ability of America to protect her interests as well as her capacity to do good in the world are largely a function of the perception of power. If even the poor and weak PA can so publicly discomfit America and get away with it, why should others listen to us, let alone heed our bidding?

How? By simultaneously reducing U.S. financial aid to Israelis and to Palestinians. The advantages of reducing aid simultaneously to both sides are twofold:

1) Those who advocate the reduction or elimination of U.S. aid to Israel are rarely the same folks who would push for reducing or eliminating aid to the Palestinians. Linking the two, therefore, might undercut criticism that the reduction is taking sides for or against Israel or Palestine;

2) Although a billion dollars is not what it used to be, every billion saved still contributes to reducing the deficit. Because of Washington’s current cost-cutting state of mind, a call to reduce foreign aid stands a better chance today of being favorably received than it has in many years. On the other hand, given the extreme turmoil in the region, the U.S. government may be reluctant to take any action at the present time which might further reduce our already diminished leverage with key players.

I recognize that many sincere friends of Israel or Palestine will object to any call for reducing American financial support. But no foreign government should assume it has such a lock on American largesse that it can ignore the request of our president without concern for repercussions.

[Note: Shame on the news media for their handling of the UN Security Council veto story. The specific language of a proposed resolution or piece of legislation makes a difference. It’s not just the spirit of the proposal that counts but also the particular words chosen. The easiest thing in the world is for a newspaper or television website to provide a hyperlink to the document in question so that the reader can view the actual text and not merely the passages that the media choose to quote. Yet in my search of more than a dozen news stories on the veto – including the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, Asharq Al-Awsat, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, several Palestinian news outlets, etc. – I found only one that provided a link to the actual text of the resolution in question. Quite surprisingly, that was the Huffington Post!]

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

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The U.N. considers Settlements

by Michael Lame, posted on January 21, 2011

Most of the time, people write about a political question only after they have reached a conclusion on the subject. They know which side they are on and they write from the conviction that they are in the right. Online and in print, we are presented with definitive conclusions followed by arguments adduced to support conclusions already arrived at. We expect certainty and that is what we are given. Usually we don’t read about the author’s struggle to work his or her way through the issues. The rule seems to be: don’t write until you are certain of the answer.

Speaking personally, sometimes I’m not sure what the right answer is about a foreign or domestic policy issue, even after immersing myself in the arguments offered by different sides. Sometimes my mind is uncertain while my heart/my gut/my emotions clearly favor a particular position. Though I don’t dismiss my emotional response to an issue as irrelevant, I don’t always trust my gut either.

Today I’m struggling with the settlements issue. Why today? Because Lebanon, on behalf of the Arab Group at the U.N., has proposed a resolution to the Security Council which, among other things, condemns Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The Security Council debated the issue on Wednesday.

This proposal has now been backed by a number of Middle East policy experts, ex-diplomats, journalists, and others, in an effort organized by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation. They have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to support the resolution.

So we have two documents to examine: the Lebanon resolution and the Clemons letter. Let’s look at their language, the likely intent behind it, and the potential impact. As I begin to write this, I am not yet clear how I will come out at the end. After all, I am critical of Israel. I do want to see an end to the occupation and an end to Palestinian statelessness.

The draft resolution, in two key paragraphs,

1. Reaffirms that the Israeli settlements established in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace;

2. Reiterates its demand that Israel, the occupying Power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard;

Unquestionably, the establishment of Israeli settlements has complicated the prospects for a two-state solution. On the other hand, many of the settlements predate the emergence of a two-state solution as a viable option.

The predominant – though not the unanimous – view among legal scholars, including Israeli scholars, is that the settlements are a violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This view rests primarily on the interpretation of one sentence in Article 49:

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

I continue to doubt that all Israeli settlements beyond the green line are illegal under international law. And if all of them are, then the law itself is flawed, for a variety of reasons – for being written too broadly, failing to distinguish between purchased land and seized land, not taking into account land with prior claims, lands in dispute, the use of state land for strategic purposes, etc.

The Geneva Conventions of 1949 were written looking back to the European experience of WWII, not looking forward to the possibility of a decades-long occupation in which neither the occupied nor the occupier was the undisputed legal sovereign. What we have here is good intentions resulting in bad law followed by moral indignation about a possible violation of that law.

But apart from any legal arguments pro or con, one can take a harsh and critical look at the morality of Israel’s settlement policy and judge it culpable. I condemn the confiscations, the demolitions, the evictions. By the actions of numerous government agencies, lawyers and judges, soldiers and civilians, Israel has grievously wronged thousands upon thousands of Palestinians. The question then becomes what to do about it.

Whether the objection to Israeli settlements is legal, moral, or both, those settlements exist. Labeling them as “obstacles” to peace doesn’t make them any less real or even any less permanent.

French Hill is a Jewish neighborhood established in east Jerusalem in 1969, decades before the Oslo Accords, when there was no talk of a two-state solution. It is part of the Jerusalem landscape, both politically and geographically. What is the value of calling it an obstacle? Does that mean that Palestinians and their supporters have hopes of buying out the 7,000 Israelis who live there or perhaps even evicting them? How does applying the “obstacle” label move us closer to peace?

The draft resolution also demands “that Israel, the occupying Power, immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory…” But what does that mean? That a homeowner in French Hill cannot add an extra bedroom? That a new bookstore cannot be built in Ma’ale Adumim? The demand is too sweeping to make sense. Alternatively and more pragmatically, one could demand no new outposts be established, no more land currently inhabited or farmed by Palestinians be confiscated, no more Israeli-only roads be built across Palestinian-owned land.

Perhaps the intention is to make such broad demands that Israel couldn’t possibly adhere to them, even if it wanted to. But these are not reasonable requests. Stop the building of new settlements. That might be reasonable. Stop all Israeli construction activities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. That is unreasonable, and short of a peace treaty between Israel and Palestine, it won’t happen.

The Clemons letter urges that the United States should approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with “the objectivity, consistency and respect for international law required if it is to play a constructive role in the conflict’s resolution.” This is nonsense.

Individuals have friends. Nations have allies. On neither the personal nor the national level is behavior primarily based on objectivity, consistency, or respect for law. Friends and allies are viewed and judged – and should be viewed and judged – differently than acquaintances, strangers, or enemies.

We expect our friends to stick up for us, not to treat us like strangers and not to be impartial. The U.S. and Israel are allies and have been for decades. Friends and allies disagree behind closed doors and, except in extraordinary circumstances, support each other in public.

Secretary of State Clinton committed a faux pas regarding the Falkland Islands/Malvinas last March during a trip to Buenos Aires by saying that “We would like to see Argentina and the United Kingdom sit down and resolve the issues between them…” The UK expects its ally, the US, with which it shares a “special relationship”, to stand by it on this issue, as it did when Reagan backed Thatcher during the Falklands War, rather than to assume a neutral stance of treating our relationships with Argentina and the UK as of equal value to us. Yes, I am advocating double standards in diplomacy, reflecting the way people actually operate in life.

The U.S. can “play a constructive role in the conflict’s resolution” by virtue of its enormous power and its close relations with the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. The parties look to America regardless of America’s subjectivity, intermittent inconsistency, and selective respect for law.

Clemons goes on to say that “If the proposed resolution is consistent with existing and established US policies, then deploying a veto would severely undermine US credibility and interests, placing us firmly outside of the international consensus, and further diminishing our ability to mediate this conflict.”

Once upon a time the international consensus favored autocracy, slavery, subjugation of women, torture, and other practices which today are considered morally reprehensible. A course of action is right or wrong regardless of the international consensus. Especially for a world leader and superpower, “getting on board” with the predominant view of the UN General Assembly is not much of an argument.

As to a veto “diminishing our ability to mediate this conflict,” a case at least as strong can be made for the opposite conclusion. The reason why Palestinians and other Arabs look to the United States to mediate or at least facilitate conflict-resolution efforts with the Israelis is because of the close relationship between the US and Israel. Even if the US can’t “deliver” Israel, it can certainly influence, counsel, perhaps persuade, or even threaten it.

It is no accident that Obama has not visited Israel since his election. If he instructs his UN representative to support this resolution or abstain from voting on it, he can forget about visiting Israel for the rest of his presidency. He will not be warmly welcomed. And more importantly, he and his administration will not be trusted by the Israelis. Yet trust of America is critical in convincing Israel to withdraw from occupied territories. The credibility issue, then, cuts both ways. A veto would increase America’s credibility with Israel. A vote for the resolution might increase its credibility in Arab nations. But even here there is a counter-argument. Other nations want to know: Is America only a fair-weather friend or does it stand with its allies when times are tough?

Of course the U.S. could choose to end its close relationship with Israel. This week I heard an ex-U.S. ambassador opine, during a panel discussion on Capitol Hill, that Americans should stop referring to Israel as a strategic ally, since it has now become a liability. For that view to become policy would constitute a seismic shift in America’s role in the Middle East.

Policy planners in the White House and at the State Department should think long and hard about the potential long-term consequences of a decision to support this resolution. Will it be seen as signaling a fundamental change in policy? The issues are too important for this to be an ad hoc decision.

The reaction of Secretary Clinton and of State Department spokesmen to the draft resolution and the letter is revealing. Their remarks emphasize process. In the words of the Secretary, “we don’t see action in the United Nations or any other forum as being helpful in bringing about that desired outcome” of face-to-face negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Having now worked my way through this issue, I see that the last two years of failed U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East can be attributed to this same style of over-reaching, over-stating, and over-generalizing that characterizes the resolution and the letter supporting it. Not all settlements are created equal. Some will stay and some will have to go. Those who support an end to occupation and a winding down or a wrapping up of the settlement project need to distinguish far more than they have to-date between one settlement and another – between those built in the past and those proposed for the future, between those built on or near the green line and those built deep in the West Bank’s interior, between those built on purchased land and those built on confiscated land, between viable communities and ideological outposts, etc.

We need a richer body of distinctions in speaking about Jewish settlements, communities, and neighborhoods.

The likelihood is slim of the UN coming up with a resolution that demonstrates that level of distinction, with its subtleties and nuances. So my conclusion? Specific words matter. The language of this resolution – to use its own term – is an obstacle to peace-making. It should not be supported.

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