The UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s colonization of the West Bank–passed by a 14-0 vote– should be uncontroversial. It merely states the overwhelming international consensus that Israel’s land grab is a flagrant violation of international law. Even if you believe most of the one-sided Israeli narrative of its conflict with the Palestinians—that Israel is the innocent victim of unrelenting Arab hatred and terrorism, that the Palestinians have rejected reasonable offers for a settlement, that they refuse to accept the legitimacy of the state of Israel, etc.—there is still no excuse for the progressive appropriation of another people’s land. In abstaining on the resolution, the United States signaled that this country has re-joined the international consensus on this issue, at least as sort of an associate member, at least for now. US UN rep Samantha Powers was applauded in the Security Council chamber when she signaled the abstention.
The abstention was the least that that the Obama administration could do, and maybe also the most it could do. It was the least because this administration, like its predecessors, has been thoroughly complicit in the very Israeli policies that it ostensibly opposes: the relentless annexation of Palestinian lands that is progressively neutering the possibility of a future Palestinian state. While mildly scolding the Israelis for their naughtiness, the administration has never put real pressure on its ally to change; it has never threatened to hold back on the huge aid packages it showers on Israel. And the US veto in the Security Council and its general diplomatic support of Israel have continued to prevent the international community from doing anything concrete to oppose Israel’s expansionism.
But the abstention—along with the blunt speech John Kerry gave to defend it—may well have been the most the administration could have been expected to do, for the same reason that no US administration has ever gotten really tough with Israel: US politics. After the American flag and the US Constitution, Israel remains the most sacred cow of American politics. Every administration knows that any serious opposition to Israeli policy must contend with the fury of the powerful Israel lobby and its many friends in Congress. So, even if it hasn’t gone nearly as far as the issues objectively merit, the Obama administration deserves some credit for pushing back against the Israeli government’s presumption of American acquiescence in its policies. Probably Obama over the course of his administration has gone about as far as any US president could go in testing the limits of the politically possible where Israel is concerned. An affirmative vote, instead of an abstention, would have been perfectly justified. So too, would US recognition of the state of Palestine, as former President Carter recently proposed in what may be regarded poignantly as his own last testament on the Middle East conflict. But our political discourse on Israel/Palestine is so badly skewed that either of these very reasonable steps would have been met with shock and horror by practically all Republicans and much of the rest of our political establishment. Obama doesn’t go in for that kind of drama.
The resolution is not very different from previous UN resolutions that US presidents have occasionally allowed to pass, but on the most recent such occasion, the Obama administration exercised its veto. So, why now? The obvious answer, once again, is politics. Certainly by early 2015 it was inescapably clear that Netanyahu and his crew were determined to trash whatever possibility remained for a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict. But Obama didn’t want to rock the American political boat going into the 2016 election. Now, freed of the political constraint, Obama and Kerry finally decided to do the right thing, to openly call out the Israeli government for its intransigence. Better late than ever