O.K., let’s be honest here. Iran is a bad actor, just as Donald Trump says.
While, to its credit, Iran has put its nuclear weapons program on ice — through an international agreement still supported by just about everyone in the world but Trump — it also regularly threatens Israel and the United States, stokes regional conflicts, interferes in its neighbors’ affairs and is believed to be stealthily developing ballistic missiles able to deliver the atomic warheads it insists that it is not pursuing.
Washington is right to call out bad behavior and should task its best diplomats to try to correct Iran’s conduct, although Trump made a potentially history-altering mistake in pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, whose terms Tehran continues to observe.
That said, Iran’s actions should not enable Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN ambassador, to now downplay the Middle East’s central conflict, the endless struggle between Palestinians and Israelis, which has tormented generations, spilled blood and tears and undermined regional peace and stability for decades.
The Trump administration likes to spotlight Iran these days, ceaselessly accusing it of violating United Nations Security Council resolutions and demanding redress even as its officials mutter “regime change” under their breaths. But it seems they have only the most casual interest in Israel, which routinely shuns the dictates of decades of Middle East resolutions by hiding behind Trump’s bellicosity.
Haley, operating in Trump’s shadow, has taken this approach over the edge, refusing to even discuss the Middle East conflict as she presided over the Council’s regular briefings on — what else? — the agenda item long known as “the situation in the Middle East.”
The latest such quarterly briefing occurred on Sept. 20, during the month the US held the Security Council’s rotating presidency. As usual, the briefing began with a presentation by Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special envoy for the Middle East peace process. He noted the rising tensions between the parties since Trump’s December 2017 announcement that he would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there, a step that fully evolved in May.
Mladenov said relations between the parties had deteriorated further after deep aid cuts were made by the US. The elimination of $300 million in assistance to Palestine for the year was justified as punishment for the Palestinians’ refusal to engage in a new round of peace talks, although the Trump White House has not disclosed even a rough outline of the plan it wants negotiated. (Trump, in his public statements, continues to appear confused about the basic aspects of his secret plan, including the question of Palestinian statehood; he said on Sept. 26 that the document would not be released for another two to four months.)
While Council resolutions exhort Israel as well as the Palestinians to move immediately to “launch credible [peace] negotiations,” there was no progress on either side, Mladenov said. While Council resolutions call on both sides to moderate their behavior, Palestinian protests along the fence between Gaza and Israel, monitored by Israeli soldiers using live fire, “brought Israel and Hamas almost to war on at least three occasions” since his last briefing, Mladenov added; 29 Palestinians, including 10 children, had been killed in the violence since his last briefing. “Some 900 people were injured by live ammunition. One Israeli soldier was killed and another injured.”
The construction of Israeli settlements had not slowed during the period, Mladenov said, despite numerous Council resolutions instructing Israel that “all settlement activities are a violation of international law and a major obstacle to peace.” In fact, on every requirement set out in the salient resolutions that he was reporting on, there was no forward movement. “No such steps were taken during the reporting period. . . . No progress was achieved in this respect,” and so on, he reported.
After Mladenov spoke, Council members gave their say, and everyone but Haley echoed Mladenov’s concerns and encouraged greater efforts.
Finally, Haley spoke. Her judgment: These regular sessions are pretty much a waste of the Council’s time.
“I’ve listened to my colleagues’ statements this afternoon with great interest,” she said. “I have always been open about my belief that this Middle East debate has been excessively and unfairly focused on Israel. Today, I will go one step further. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is serious and worthy of this Council’s attention. But if there is one country that is the source of conflict and instability in the Middle East — one country that merits a quarterly debate in the Security Council — that country is not Israel. It’s Iran.”
Is this a case of overzealous multilateral organizations seeking to dictate America’s role in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as Haley fears, or are the misguided international security concerns of previous US administrations to blame? Should guidance instead flow from Trump’s America First doctrine, or the president’s insistence on national sovereignty above all other considerations?
Or is current US policy being driven by the Republican Party’s need to please wealthy campaign donors to improve its performance in the 2018 midterm elections?
According to a recent article in The New York Times, Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, and his Israeli wife, Dr. Miriam Adelson, have put a record tens of millions of dollars of campaign cash behind their desire to see the US embassy in Israel moved to Jerusalem and to slashing Palestinian aid.
Trump, who began his presidential campaign unconcerned about where the US embassy in Israel was located, promised the Adelsons in January 2017 that he would move it to Jerusalem, according to The Times, and the president met his promise 12 months later. Pleased with the decision, the Adelsons in February 2018 offered to help fund the construction of a new embassy, but it’s unclear whether this is happening, The Times reported. (Haley also benefited from Sheldon Adelson’s coffers, when he donated to her political organization in 2016, to unseat four Republican state senate rivals in South Carolina primaries.)
The Adelsons now consider continued Republican control of Washington to be crucial to furthering Trump’s policies on Israel, having funneled $55 million in the last few months “to groups dedicated to making sure it stays that way,” The Times added. “That makes them not only the largest donors to national Republican electoral efforts in this election cycle, but the biggest spenders on federal elections in all of American politics, according to publicly available campaign finance data.”
In a nod to Palestinian interests, Trump acknowledged while he was in New York, attending the new General Assembly session, that the decision to relocate the US embassy had been a bit of a gift to Israel but was necessary to get talks started on an eventual peace accord.
“Actually, by taking off the table the embassy moving to Jerusalem, that was always the primary ingredient as to why deals couldn’t get done. I spoke to many of the negotiating teams, and they said they could never get past the embassy moving into Jerusalem and all of what that meant, which you know what that meant. That meant everything. And now, that’s off the table. Now, that will also mean that Israel will have to do something that will be good for the other side,” Trump told reporters after a Sept. 26 meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Actually, the embassy move has so far created the opposite effect, moving the Palestinian side to cut contact with Washington and pushing most of the international community to line up behind the Palestinians. Many of the world’s richest countries have also pitched in to fill the huge funding gap left by the White House on Palestinian aid. The backbone of international opinion on a Middle East peace has long been that a deal must be built on negotiations between the two sides.
The administration predicted, for example, that other nations would follow suit and rapidly move their own embassies to Jerusalem. The US move was echoed only by Paraguay and Guatemala, however, and Paraguay announced on Sept. 5 that it was returning its embassy to Tel Aviv.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the conflict’s “most complex components,” the country’s Foreign Ministry said. “Paraguay considers that it has to be addressed through negotiations by the concerned parties, within the framework of the relevant international organization’s decisions.”
The reference, Ambassador Haley, is to the framework created by decades of UN Security Council resolutions.
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