Understanding Obama's Settlement Posture

When the strongest UN member state asks the weakest not-yet-state to do something, coercion is a good word to describe it -- particularly as the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority depends on U.S. aid for its existence.
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"You can't maintain power through coercion," President Barack Obama declared at last Tuesday's press conference, taking aim at dictators in the Arab world and Iran. Two days later, he brought the weight of his office to bear on Mahmoud Abbas to get the Palestinians to withdraw a resolution condemning Israeli settlements from the United Nations Security Council.

When the strongest UN member state asks the weakest not-yet-state to do something, coercion is a good word to describe it -- particularly as the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority depends on U.S. aid for its existence.

In theory, the UN resolution was one that the administration should have had no problem supporting since it has repeatedly condemned Israel's relentless colonization of the Palestinian land that it occupied during the 1967 war in violation of international law.

Or has it? Even though senior officials often proclaim their belief in the "illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" a closer reading suggests this administration has sided with Israel on its settlement project.

There is a big difference between condemning Israeli settlements as illegal, as in fact they are under the law, and speaking of the "illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." Illegal means that not one settlement or settler in Jerusalem and the West Bank has the right to be there, unless the Palestinians grant that right as part of a final settlement.

By contrast, in speaking of "continued" settlement as illegitimate, the Obama administration seems only to condemn new construction, not passing any opinion on the massive and destructive construction of the past 44 years.

No wonder that Palestinian negotiators were unable to get Obama's special envoy George Mitchell to agree to recognize the pre-1967 armistice lines as the borders of a Palestinian state, as revealed in the Palestine Papers.

And no wonder the Netanyahu government is racing ahead with new settlement construction and demolitions of Palestinian homes. It's betting that anything settlers can build today won't be considered "continued" but a finished fact on the ground.

Both Obama and Abbas were in a tight spot over the resolution: Obama might have lost a chance for a second term to his presidency if he had supported it; Abbas would almost certainly have lost his presidency if he hadn't.

Obama would have incurred the wrath of American Jews and Christians who support Israel right or wrong even if the U.S. administration had simply abstained on the resolution. No U.S. politician can afford to be defined as anti-Israel, particularly not one working for reelection -- even though he's just offered Israel the most generous aid package ever.

As for Abbas, his term of office -- which expired in 2009 -- has been marked by so many episodes of apparent collusion with Israel and the U.S. over the attacks on and siege of Gaza that neither he nor the Fatah party he leads could have afforded to be seen as caving in to American pressure again. Abbas' weakness was recently exacerbated by the Palestine Papers, leaked to Al Jazeera, that reveal the Palestinian negotiators' willingness to make major concessions about refugee rights and Jerusalem without getting anything in return.

Both American and Palestinian leaders have been further affected by the fast pace of the revolutions sweeping much of the Arab world. The Obama administration sought to have the resolution withdrawn rather than having to veto it because, not only was it the administration's first use of its veto at the UN, but it would also send a terrible message to the people of the Arab region, already outraged by US support for dictatorial regimes and its heavy military footprint.

In the end, domestic U.S. political considerations won out and the Obama administration cast its first veto, putting paid to any illusions that might have remained regarding the U.S. role as an honest broker in making peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Perhaps more significantly, all 14 other Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution, underscoring American isolation on the issue as well as its waning influence. There used to be a time when even European countries feared the wrath of the US.

The lessons the Palestinian Authority should draw are simple: Declare the Oslo process at an end and re-constitute effective sources of Palestinian power. The first steps would involve healing the Fatah-Hamas split and reviving truly representative and democratic Palestinian institutions with the Palestine Liberation Organization at their head. It will not be easy but it must be done. Egypt and Tunisia have shown that if leaders cannot fulfill the aspirations of their people, the people will take it upon themselves to demand change they can believe in.

Nadia Hijab is co-director of Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network.

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