The Security Council's Israeli Settlement Resolution: Seven Observations

1) Yesterday, Obama instructed his UN ambassador Samantha Power to abstain from voting on a Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. It is a sign of how low we have sunk that this abstention feels like a victory. The text of the resolution is the most anodyne stuff imaginable; this is why it received unanimous support from the remainder of the Security Council. In addition to declaring settlements an obstacle to peace, it emphasizes at several points the Israeli right to security. Far from being hostile to Israel, its central argument is very simple: settlements are redrawing the map of the occupied territories in a way that makes the lasting peace of a two-state solution impossible.

2) The same was true in 2011, when the US did use its veto power to prevent a similar Security Resolution from passing, so it is hard not to see the abstention through the lens of US politics. For eight years Obama has been severely constrained in dealing with an Israeli government completely uninterested in peace: even his mildest criticisms have caused a furor, and have been opportunistically exploited by Congressional Republicans tripping over themselves to lick the boots of Bibi Netanyahu. If this is Obama's parting shot, it also retains the dignity of his subdued and measured style in the face of unrepentant irrationality.

3) As so many things do, the abstention immediately provoked an angry and foreboding tweet from Donald Trump: "As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th." It has been reported that he urged Obama to veto the resolution, confirming suspicions of his sympathies with the Israeli right. This is a man who just appointed David Friedman, a stalwart supporter of settlements, as his ambassador to Israel. Trump was more successful in his calls to Egypt, the Security Council member state that initially introduced the resolution and promptly folded at the slightest touch. After Egypt signaled that it would delay its resolution, it was re-introduced by New Zealand, Venezuela, Malaysia, and Senegal.

4) Egypt's actions in this instance are an excellent lesson in the cowardice of the "strong Arab state." A certain kind of Israel critic excuses the crimes of Arab authoritarianism because we need "strong Arab states" to stand up to Israel and the West. This episode shows that Egypt's new strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has learned much more from his Saudi patrons than he has from Gamal Abdel Nasser, to whom he has been compared by his adulators at home. The Saudi approach, which Egypt has here followed to the letter, entails paying lip-service to the Palestinian cause while taking no real action toward peace whatsoever. This empty show of Arab solidarity then excuses the crimes of totalitarianism at home. Only fools will be fooled.

5) There may be an unintentional silver lining of a Trump presidency: it could make Netanyahu's tenuous grip on power more tenuous still. Netanyahu has thus far been able to cast himself as pursuing the agenda of the Israeli right in the face of American pressure. His coalition with right-wing parties, the source of his slender parliamentary majority, rests on this tissue of lies. With a pro-settlement US administration entering office, he will face a difficult choice: either align himself more fully with the right and potentially isolate centrist voters, or try to carve out a centrist position that might isolate his allies on the right. If he suffers electoral losses, it may open a very small window of opportunity for the left-center alliance, the Zionist Union, which narrowly lost the 2015 election. This would depend on the left presenting a more compelling alternative to Netanyahu than it has done thus far.

6) All of the major US news outlets have covered UN Security Council Resolution 2334. But you will not find the full text on the website of the Washington Post or New York Times. It is up on the websites of Haaretz and the Times of Israel. True to form, American coverage has focused on the partisan shouting that this episode has inspired, rather than on any of the substantive issues at stake. Is it any surprise, then, that public conversation on this and so many topics remains mired in ignorance? That American democracy is broken? Actual information never sees the light of day in this country. Much more important than the resolution itself, apparently, is that Lindsey Graham is grousing about Obama having delayed the Second Coming.

7) As is so often the case with the United Nations, the resolution feels as though it has arrived a decade after it might have had any positive consequence: it will offer more leverage to Palestinians in negotiating a two-state solution that will never happen. The Occupation will soon turn fifty. Settlements have already dramatically altered the map of the Palestinian territories, and building starts have increased by forty percent this year. Much as the two-state solution remains a settled fixture in rhetoric on the path to peace, factual analysis suggests that it is impossible. Though it is hard to identify the precise moment when we passed the point of no return, it has almost certainly been passed. We are no longer in the age of Occupation but of de facto Annexation, so finger-wagging about Israel's trampling upon the Geneva Conventions serves little purpose. Israel's settlement policy has assured that only a one-state solution is practicable now. That state would have to answer Jewish demands of a homeland, and Arab demands of full citizenship. That seems impossible, too, but it may be the only way forward.