The peace and quiet of our Sabbath dinner was interrupted by the news that President Obama ultimately betrayed Israel at the UN, as many, including myself, had predicted a long time ago. Free from all election constraints Obama could finally allow himself to act on his beliefs that Israeli obstinacy, and its settlement-policy in particular, is the main obstacle to peace.
As I wrote on my blog in October: “My gut tells me it is entirely possible that the President will go forward with a UNSC resolution, proposed by someone else, and that he believes that imposing a framework, rather than a complete solution, is the only way forward. I also believe that if he does so he likely thinks that he’s ultimately doing Israel a favor by saving it from itself.”
I was hardly alone or the first to think that Obama would allow anti-Israel resolutions after the election, the fact that the administration has been exceedingly clear about its views on the settlements and the way forward made it abundantly clear that this was a real possibility.
Of course, regardless of all the claims to the contrary, there’s in fact very little basis for the idea that the settlements are illegal, and even less for the idea that they constitute a real obstacle to peace. Borders can always be decided in negotiations and settlements can theoretically be evacuated, like those of the Gaza Strip were more than a decade ago.
What happens when you focus on the settlements as the main culprit is that you seek to remove one of the “sticks” Israel has got for nudging the Palestinians to the negotiating-table. Both sides have been jockeying for increased leverage and to hold better “cards” for two decades now. This is perhaps the main reason that the negotiations have failed so many times: the Palestinians dislike the cards they hold and continue to think that time works in their favor. If they keep saying no they will keep getting better and better offers. True, there’s a real cost to the status quo for them, but for those with a long-term perspective it’s possible to endure the suffering (that is anyhow carried mostly by ordinary Palestinians, rather than the undemocratic and unaccountable elites).
By enabling settlements Israel actually imposes another “cost” to Palestinian intransigence (regardless of the fact that Israel’s settlement policy is a child begotten by many parents). The logic of Israeli actions is that the Palestinians had better accept a peace agreement soon, or risk having too many facts on the ground created that will make it all but impossible to gain all of it back. It’s clear that the world doesn’t view it in these terms. The world has ever treated the Palestinians to countless carrots, including foreign aid by the billions of dollars, and never any real sticks. Because there’s supposedly no alternative to the current corrupt Palestinian leadership, or so conventional wisdom goes, the world must look the other way as it promotes terrorism and keeps saying no to all peace offers. The international community doesn’t really demand anything of the Palestinians, or rather their demands have absolutely no teeth, and there will never be a price to pay for saying no to peace offers or refusing to even negotiate. It’s like the international community refuses to internalize the lessons of two decades of the stalled peace process.
Now, why would the Palestinian leadership agree to a peace deal in the coming years? They are often quite rich, powerful and aren’t truly accountable to anyone (President Abbas won a four year term more than a decade ago). Accepting peace now means painful and dangerous compromise, especially with Netanyahu as PM, given that they have done absolutely nothing to prepare their people for such compromises, while you can always hope for a much stronger bargaining position later on. In fact, the entire premise of the negotiations is fundamentally flawed and world leaders refuse to understand this.
Ultimately this resolution will harm Israel somewhat, but I doubt that for all the loud barking it has got much bite. It’s a last desperate scramble of the old guard, while the meaning and importance of such international agreements, conventions and resolutions are likely going to continue to be challenged like never before in a new era of power politics. At the same time Israel keeps strengthening its relative position in the world and probably doesn’t have that much to worry about for now.