It’s pretty clear that the United States not only abstained from using its veto, but took part in shaping the latest anti-Israel resolution at the UN Security Council. The White House has of course denied this, but it merely follows a long list of misleading statements, obfuscations, deceptions and outright lies (yeah, I’m looking at you Ben Rhodes) on international affairs. No one is surprised at the timing of this resolution, since Obama has nothing left to lose with the elections behind us.
Now, there are some who claim that this just shows that Obama was always anti-Israel and that he has finally shown his true colors. Others point to the track-record until now of always standing up for Israel at the UN Security Council and elsewhere, and of the generous aid-package that has Obama’s signature. The latter claim that Obama wants to save Israel from itself and its foolish and dangerous pro-settlement policies (although declaring them all “illegal”, including the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, and alienating the vast majority of Israelis was perhaps not a brilliant way to go about it).
As always I believe that truth lies somewhere in the middle. Obama certainly doesn’t hate Israel or considers it an adversary in any way, form or shape. His instinct has not been genuinely pro-Israel, but political necessity has informed his somewhat pro-Israel policies until now. I believe that to him Israeli nationalism is yet another of the obstacles to the kind of world he’s striving for, based on secular universal ideals (read: ideals of Western elites). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an obstacle to the creation of this kind of world, that is more just and fair. Since the Cairo speech in 2009 it has been clear that he believes that Israel’s control of Judea & Samaria, including eastern Jerusalem, needs to end for Islamic extremism to lose its appeal to many young Muslims, who supposedly hate the West because of Israel, at least to some extent.
For political reasons Obama has been inclined to officially support Israel even as he repeatedly clashed with Netanyahu, but the election results have changed the calculation somewhat. Some go as far as to call Obama antisemitic, but that’s clearly nonsense. Obama clearly likes liberal Jews, but can’t stand nationalists like Netanyahu and the Likud party (not to mention religious Zionists) who stubbornly insist that they understand the region and its issues better than Obama. Recall the “patronizing” lecture Netanyahu gave Obama in the WH that caused such outrage? Perhaps Obama should have listened.
This is not the first time that Obama’s instincts and ideological beliefs, on how history is supposed to unfold as it bends towards justice, lead him astray. We recall the support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, among many other issues.
Under Obama the US has lost a lot of influence in the international arena. As Walter Russell Mead writes: Almost everywhere one looks around the world, the net effect of the policies of the Obama presidency has been to undermine the movements and the values that the President hoped to support; the cause of the Palestinians and the quest for the two state solution are no exceptions to the rule.” Or as Alan Dershowitz says, this UN resolution will “solidify Obama’s reputation as one of the worst foreign policy presidents in modern history”. The problem with Obama seems to be that he thinks that he knows best and does not need to listen to people who actually understand this region. Nothing he has done so far in almost 8 years has actually helped promote the peace process, despite all the good intentions. Many years ago he insisted on a complete settlement freeze, including natural growth, a political impossibility in Israel and a demand that actually went beyond what the Palestinians had ever expected to get, causing Abu Mazen (President Abbas) to climb up a tree on the issue that he has yet to come down from – if Obama demands a complete settlement freeze than Abu Mazen can’t be seen to demand less. This is only one example of how Obama has “helped” the peace process, by failing to grasp some of the basics of the conflict.
Obama is one of those who truly believe that the creation of a Palestinian state is the solution and don’t really understand why this self-evidently sensible solution has not been implemented, other than that the stubborn “coward” Netanyahu is at fault. As George Friedman of Stratfor shows, the issue encounters problems of viability (from a strategic perspective):

Issues of viability and sovereignty surround any discussion of a Palestinian state. Geography raises questions about the viability of any Palestinian polity. Palestine has two population centers, Gaza and the West Bank, which are detached from one another. One population center, Gaza, is an enormously crowded, narrow salient. Its ability to develop a sustainable economy is limited. The West Bank has more possibilities, but even it would be subordinate to a dynamic Israel. If the Palestinian workforce is drawn into the Israeli economy, both territories will become adjuncts to Israel. Within its current borders, a viable Palestine is impossible to imagine.

From the Israeli point of view, creating a Palestine along something resembling the 1967 lines (leaving aside the question of Jerusalem) would give the Palestinians superb targets, namely, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Given its history, Israel is unlikely to take that risk unless it had the right to oversee security in the West Bank in some way. That in turn would undermine Palestinian sovereignty.

As you play out the possibilities in any two-state solution, you run into the problem that any solution one side demanded would be unbearable to the other. Geography simply won’t permit two sovereign states. In this sense, the extremists on both sides are more realistic than the moderates. But that reality encounters other problems.

In other words, even assuming that you can distance the zealots on both sides from power in favor of the “moderates”, you still run into serious problems of national interests.

The Palestinian leadership understands that they actually have more to gain by being stuck in this sort of limbo of semi-statehood, where they are received as foreign dignitaries around the world, given plenty of money (with little oversight) and taken seriously in world capitals, while not being held accountable by anyone. Creating a state on the other hand, one that realistically needs to meet minimalist Israeli security demands, would risk all of what they have now. The world would lose interest in them and the Palestinian cause, the money would partially dry-up, their own people may demand democracy and end to the corruption.

Israel understands that the Palestinians can’t meet its most minimalist security demands, that a Palestinian state would suffer from such internal instability that risks jeopardizing the peace agreement, that the popular radical groups such as Hamas won’t go away, that it’s inconceivable for a Palestinian leader to give up the “right of return”, making all attempts at a peace agreement moot. Even if an agreement was reached it wouldn’t stick.

Obama never really understood any of this. History bends towards justice after all, so why shouldn’t the international community’s efforts bear fruit if they just keep pushing Israel?

The Palestinians have been quite clever and made use of Obama’s naivety to improve their relative position by turning away from negotiations to international institutions, such as the many institutions at the UN. The Palestinian strategy of trying to gain the upper hand by using the international community to force Israel to concessions while not offering any of their own, is obvious. This is also why the US has until recently tried to block these efforts even when it sometimes agrees on principle, since they don’t actually bring a negotiated peace agreement any closer.

At this time both sides are simply playing the waiting-game; waiting for conditions to change in their favor. The Palestinians do what they can internationally, while hoping for anything that would deal them a better hand, even assuming that they are not merely waiting for Israel’s ultimate demise. The campaign of terror that was launched in 2000, a.k.a. the 2nd intifada, aimed to serve the same purpose of improving a weak negotiating position. That Obama eventually rewarded their current campaign of diplomatically isolating Israel is no doubt a victory, but ultimately such “victories” do little. Israel is trying its best to limit the damage the Palestinians can cause, while actively trying to develop economic and strategic ties to countries around the world. By strengthening ties of trade and security cooperation, it hopes to alleviate some of the pressure on the Palestinian issue. Israel’s relative power, both economically and in its value to others as a partner in many fields, is steadily increasing. If Israel can avoid some of the pitfalls that may lie ahead, it may actually keep gaining from the status quo, until such a time as conditions are ripe for some kind of Palestinian state, albeit without full sovereignty, or autonomy within a larger Israeli state. From an Israeli hardliner’s perspective Obama may actually have been a godsend to Israel, allowing it to strengthen its position for 8 full years.

One comment

  1. While I have no real information about what Obama actually thinks or feels I do think the world is not in a better place. I am also not sure how the Israeli-Palestinian problem can be resolved and I am not alone in this. It seems a two state solution would be a true challenge to implement peacefully and is not of interest to the Palestinians. As you note, they have a lot to lose. Israel seems to be flourishing in many ways and yet weighted down by this conundrum. The world acts as if the Jews just arrived in Israel in 1948 and the fact that we have been expelled and attacked multiple times is lost. As long a the view is that Israel usurped someone else’s country there will be a negative perception and Israel will be bogged down. Any other country who was attacked and gained territory as a result of war would be accepted, even if reluctantly. As the US clearly noted in their speech at the UN this week, Israel has been dealt with unevenly in comparison to other countries. How do we turn things around so that peace is deemed in everyone’s best interest and all can thrive?

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