Relations between the United States and Israel are often tempestuous, but the fireworks have rarely been as explosive as those that marked the end of 2016. The U.S. decision to abstain from a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements and a subsequent speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that questioned the Tel Aviv government’s commitment to a two-state solution rocked the foundations of that partnership. Both incidents focused on two questions: How far can Washington go when publicly disagreeing with Tel Aviv and how committed is the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the two-state solution?
The tempest flared late last month when the Security Council took up a resolution demanding that Israel stop the construction of settlements on occupied Palestinian territory. Today, 570,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem among more than 2.6 million Palestinians and that number will grow steadily as settlements expand. In the past, the U.S. actively fought to keep such a resolution from reaching a vote, and if those efforts failed, it would have vetoed the resolution. (Often, that threat alone is enough to stop the Security Council from considering a measure.) This time, however, the U.S. abstained on the vote and it passed 14-0, sparking fury in Netanyahu, who accused the Obama administration of abandoning his country.
Five days later, Kerry defended the abstention in a speech that laid out the Obama administration’s thinking. He explained that the U.S. “acted with one primary objective in mind: to preserve the possibility of the two-state solution.” This is the notion that two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian, will eventually co-exist in the Middle East. This idea is almost universally accepted as the only possible formula for genuine peace in the region. Debates about implementation focus on details such as borders, the military capacity of the Palestinian state and the like.
Kerry, like many in the U.S. (and around the world), believes that expansion of Jewish settlements on territory claimed by Palestinians is not only impeding efforts to strike a diplomatic solution, but is intended to do so. Hopes for a peaceful Middle East are “now in jeopardy, with terrorism, violence and incitement continuing and unprecedented steps to expand settlements being advanced by avowed opponents of the two-state solution.”
Kerry charged that “the settler agenda is defining the future of Israel, and their stated purpose is clear. …They believe in one state: greater Israel.” The problem with this formula, in addition to the violence it has and will continue to foment, is that it threatens the foundations of the modern state of Israel. The Palestinian population is growing much faster than that of Israelis. Expanding settlements does not change that demographic problem — in fact, it intensifies it. Ultimately, Israelis must decide if they are going to be a predominately Jewish state or a democratic one in which all citizens, including a Palestinian majority, have a vote. Kerry’s speech was a reminder of the consequences of the settlement policy and the choice it would force on Israel.
For Netanyahu and his allies, the vote and the speech are two more examples of the Obama administration’s perfidy. Netanyahu has long believed that the U.S. president is less firm in his commitment to Israel than were his predecessors. He was infuriated by Obama’s readiness to strike a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, and he even went around the president to speak directly to U.S. congressmen and get them to pressure President Barack Obama on Israel’s behalf. Netanyahu believes that the UNSC resolution is one more example of the world body beating up on Israel when far worse misdeeds are committed elsewhere in the region. He also alleges that the U.S. was actually behind the resolution, an assertion that administration officials deny.
U.S. officials also reject the charge that the U.S. commitment is softening, noting that Washington just approved the largest military assistance package in history, and that Kerry challenged Israelis and Palestinians to accept the challenge of forging an enduring peace. Kerry himself explained that support for Israel is not a blank check: “Friends need to tell each other the hard truths, and friendships require mutual respect.”
Netanyahu is looking forward to Jan. 20 when the new administration of Donald Trump takes office. Trump has been an unquestioning supporter of Israel and his nominee for ambassador to Israel is a fervent backer of the settlements. Trump tweeted after the UNSC vote, that “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th.”
That is no doubt true. But the fundamental pressure on Israel — the choice between its Jewish and democratic identities — will intensify. Netanyahu will also find that he faces a more delicate situation with Trump in the White House. While the Israeli prime minister is a conservative nationalist, he is also a pragmatist. He knows that his country is divided on the settlements and that the one-state solution is the dream of only the hardest of hardliners. Having a critical friend in Washington means that he can use U.S. criticism to check the radicals on his right. That excuse will vanish when Obama leaves office. Netanyahu may soon yearn for an “adversary” in the White House.
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