Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen. – Woody Guthrie
On 23 December 2016, lame-duck President Barack Obama struck back at Israel for her insouciant refusal to acquiesce to the empowerment of her deadly enemy, Iran; and at the same time at least partly kept his promises to pro-Palestinian activists, who had been disappointed by what they saw as his insufficient firmness toward Israel.
On that day, the US abstained on a vote and allowed the UN Security Council to pass resolution 2334, which declared all “settlements” outside of the pre-1967 lines – including eastern Jerusalem – “illegal under international law,” and “call[ed] upon all States … to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967,” a provision which has been used to justify discriminatory labeling and boycotts of Jewish products from the territories. The resolution asserted that Israel was in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention and demanded that she “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities…”
This was the first anti-settlement Security Council resolution that the US had not vetoed since the Carter Administration. It directly contradicts the position of the Israeli government, which views the territories as disputed, not occupied, and the Jewish communities there as entirely legal (see here and here).
While creating dangerous precedents (e.g., for the prosecution of Israeli officials in the International Criminal Court and for the justification of BDS activity), the resolution was passed under Chapter VI of the UN Charter and not Chapter VII, which would justify the application of economic sanctions or even military action against Israel.
Although the resolution was introduced by Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal and Venezuela (it was originally proposed by Egypt, but Israel persuaded the Egyptians to withdraw it), a spokesman for PM Netanyahu said that Israel received “ironclad information” via Arab countries that “this was a deliberate push by the United States and in fact they helped create the resolution in the first place.” Netanyahu said that he had asked Russian President Putin to veto resolution 2334, but Putin (although Russia apparently did try to delay the vote) would not do so.
Recently, PM Netanyahu told the Israel Hayom newspaper that Obama had planned to go even further:
He and his staff began working on another UNSC resolution, which would have forced Israel to agree to a Palestinian state based on the 1948 borders. Israel’s UN ambassador at the time, Danny Danon, sounded the alarm.
At the time, the US administration denied the Israeli claim that another resolution, in addition to UNSCR 2334, was going to be brought before the UN Security Council.
Did Bibi exaggerate? Hardly. A clue to the details of this second resolution was provided by a contemporaneous article by Nathan Thrall, who described, on the basis of interviews with “top US officials” what such a resolution might look like:
…to set down the guidelines or “parameters” of a peace agreement—on the four core issues of borders, security, refugees, and Jerusalem—in a US-supported UN Security Council resolution. Once passed, with US support, these Security Council-endorsed parameters would become international law, binding, in theory, on all future presidents and peace brokers.
Top US officials see a parameters resolution as Obama’s only chance at a lasting, positive legacy, one that history might even one day show to have been more important to peace than the achievements of his predecessors.
As we know, Obama’s position on borders was that permanent ones had to be “based on” the 1949 armistice lines, with only small swaps to accommodate some settlement blocs, requiring that the Palestinians be compensated for the swaps with land from the pre-1967 state of Israel. In contrast to the Israeli view that Israel held title to the territories (although she would consider ceding some of the area in return for a peace agreement), Obama saw all of the land across the Green Line as “occupied Palestinian territories.”
Any agreement that would result in Israel losing control of the Jordan Valley and the high ground of Judea and Samaria would render the country indefensible. Israel cannot afford to allow those borders to be imposed under any circumstances.
Obama’s view was at odds with the 1949 armistice agreement as well as UNSC 242, the grandmother of all UNSC resolutions concerning the Israeli-Arab conflict, and the Oslo Accords. The armistice agreements clearly stated that the cease-fire lines simply represented the areas under control of the sides at the time of the cessation of hostilities, and that they had no political significance. UNSC 242 called for “secure and recognized boundaries” that would be arrived at by negotiation between the parties (at that time Israel and the Arab nations). Oslo replaced the Arab nations with the Palestinian Authority, but also made the question of borders a final status issue to be settled by negotiation.
Obama wished to upend all that and reward the Palestinians with the whole enchilada prior to negotiation. Whether such a resolution would indeed have “become [binding] international law” is not at all clear, but there is no doubt that it would be used as justification for continued pressure on Israel. If it had passed, it would have been used as an argument against the Trump plan, which is in essence a 2-state solution that is not based on the 1949 lines.
According to Netanyahu, when he heard about Obama’s intention, he called “his friend” Vladimir Putin, and convinced him that it was a bad idea. And Putin agreed to veto it if it came up. The Obama administration realized that this would be an embarrassment which would hurt the Democrats domestically without gaining anything, and so decided not to push it.
If Netanyahu’s story is true – and the Thrall article, which obviously represents Obama Administration thinking suggests strongly that it is – then what lessons can be drawn from it?
The main one is that Israel should beware of Obama and his gang, who have not gone away and will be very influential again if the Democrats win the coming election. We should think about this very carefully when considering when to apply Israeli law to the strategic Jordan Valley.
Another is that if indeed Putin intervened, it is evidence that Israel cannot afford to become a ward (or a satellite!) of one of the great powers. It must maintain friendly connections with all sides. A small country in the Middle East won’t survive otherwise.
And one more: Woody Guthrie was right. Not every enemy comes at you with a gun.