Benjamin Netanyahu’s desperate 11th-hour election strategy has left in tatters the main United States argument for aggressively protecting Israeli interests in the Middle East peace process, a development that will most likely weaken the Obama administration’s already strained fervor for shielding Israel in international diplomatic battles.
A new dynamic will surely surface in the United Nations Security Council, which has been increasingly pressured to assume a more dominant role in Middle East diplomacy but has been largely sidelined by Washington, acting at Israel’s behest. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the US has regularly relied on its superpower status and its veto — or the threat of a veto — to bat down international moves to support Palestinian goals that appear to conflict with Israeli interests.
The core argument of the US has been that all decisions in the peace process must result from bilateral negotiations between the two parties and never from unilateral actions. This approach has been the consistent American stance even as relations have deteriorated between the Israeli prime minister and Obama in recent years.
But Netanyahu, confronting opinion polls predicting his defeat in the March 17 parliamentary elections, launched a last-minute scorched earth offensive that was totally dependent on unilateral positions. His frantic vote-grabbing burst will almost certainly deal a devastating blow to Washington’s ability to argue against Palestinian unilateralism.
Seeking to draw more right-wing voters to his Likud party, Netanyahu made the biggest unilateral move possible in the Middle East arena, declaring that he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state if he were returned to office. His pitch, a blatant rejection of the central goal of the peace process, seems to eliminate a resumption of bilateral peace talks during his term. While Netanyahu had never appeared eager to pursue a statehood deal, he endorsed the two-state solution in a 2009 speech.
If that move by Netanyahu did not convince skeptical world leaders that he was never really serious about peace negotiations, he also acknowledged just before the voting began that his government had been sugarcoating its motives in expanding Israeli settlements for years.
Essentially, all nations but Israel view these settlements as a distasteful if not illegal grab of Palestinian lands, but the act of creating new settlements and expanding others goes beyond the question of legality. In creating what international diplomats refer to as “new facts on the ground,” each piece of land taken from the occupied Palestinian territories to house Israeli settlers removes a piece of land from a potential future Palestinian state. And it does so in a completely unilateral fashion.
Nowhere are Israel’s settlement policies more contentious than in East Jerusalem, the predominantly Arab section of the ancient city that had been under Jordanian rule before its annexation by Israel immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War. The Palestinians seek East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel views all of Jerusalem as its capital and rejects the possibility the city could be divided.
Israeli officials have always denied that the settlements are intended to prejudice the boundaries of a new Palestinian state. They say their aim is only to house growing numbers of Israeli settlers, who can be removed for a peace deal.
But Netanyahu, in an election-eve visit to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, publicly acknowledged the deception, boasting that he had helped establish an Israeli settlement there in 1997, against US wishes, to prevent Palestinians from moving into the area and building momentum toward a divided Jerusalem by creating an uninterrupted Arab neighborhood stretching to Bethlehem to the south.
Had he not taken this step, a second “Hamastan” would have sprouted there, Netanyahu said, using an Israeli term for Hamas-ruled Gaza. “The pressure around this decision back then was enormous. But I insisted — I ordered the construction and it paid off. . . . It was a way of stopping Bethlehem from moving toward Jerusalem.”
Netanyahu’s campaign tactics are most likely to have an explosive impact in the UN Security Council, which has tread cautiously in its relations with Israel even as it chafed at the Israeli leader’s aggressive tactics and imperial manner. While the Palestinians enjoy overwhelming support among the UN membership at large, the power lies in the 15-nation Security Council. Now, the US and all other council members will be recalibrating their approaches.
Meanwhile, Palestinian reaction to Netanyahu’s pronouncements was withering.
The chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said that Netanyahu’s statements demonstrated a double standard in international diplomacy, which treated unilateral Palestinian moves as unacceptable while ignoring unilateral Israeli tactics.
“Netanyahu’s statement at the illegal settlement of Har Homa is a response to all those governments who tried to block Palestinian diplomatic initiatives,” he said. “He couldn’t have done that without counting on full impunity from the international community. Now the world must learn its lesson and understand that impunity won’t bring peace, only justice will.”
Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said of Netanyahu: “He has confirmed verbally for the first time what we have denounced for years. That Har Homa is not about an innocent ‘Jerusalem neighborhood’ on occupied land but about splitting occupied East Jerusalem from Bethlehem.”
Netanyahu’s sudden embrace of unilateralism runs counter to years of US and Israeli insistence on direct negotiations between the parties.
In December 2014, for example, when Palestinians asked the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution establishing deadlines for a negotiated Middle East peace deal and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu responded, “We will not accept attempts to dictate to us unilateral moves on a limited timetable.”
The US State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, agreed, saying, “Our belief is that a two-state solution, an agreement between the two parties, is the best way to achieve peace in the region.”
The resolution was defeated by a vote of eight to two with five abstentions. While the US ambassador, Samantha Power, voted against the resolution, this was not counted as a veto because the proposal failed to obtain the minimum nine votes required for passage.
Washington also voted no in 2012 on a UN General Assembly resolution granting the Palestinians the politically hollow yet symbolically important status of a UN “nonmember observer state.” The resolution passed 138-9 with 41 abstentions, but General Assembly measures are not binding.
“We have been clear that only through direct negotiations between the parties can the Palestinians and Israelis achieve the peace they both deserve,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the time, explaining the US position.
The US and Israel also objected when the Palestinians joined Unesco in 2011, arguing that Palestine needed to be a nation to join and that statehood could come only through direct negotiations with Israel. The move devastated Unesco, with the US and Israel cutting off their dues to the agency. Washington had paid 22 percent of Unesco’s budget and Israel 3 percent.
Similarly, Washington and Israel were opposed to Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court, to take effect on April 1. Israel and the US, which have chosen not to be ICC members, again argue that statehood is a prerequisite for joining the court.
Analysts have predicted that Netanyahu might reverse himself again and climb back on the statehood bandwagon once his government is formed. But with his campaign appeals now indelibly part of the international record, how can Washington keep a straight face if it ever again objects to Palestinian unilateralism?
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.