02/21/2011, 00.00
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U.S. veto at the UN, a boomerang against Israel

by Arieh Cohen
The United States vetoed a draft resolution to stop Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. In this way the U.S. damages their relations with the Arab world, but also risk undermining the "two states" solution. Israel is likely to cancel itself out as the Jewish homeland because it will have to accept a Palestinian majority.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – Palestinians cannot understand how any American foreign policy interest could be served, rather than harmed, by the decision of the U.S. Administration to veto, on 18 February 2011, the UN Security Council Draft Resolution requiring Israel to cease and desist from further colonization of Palestinian territories under its belligerent occupation since June 1967, in effect, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. All the other fourteen members of the Security Council, including the U.S.’s Western allies, voted in favour of the Resolution. Moreover, as the American Ambassador to the UN, Susan E. Rice, explained, the US actually does agree with the contents of the Resolution. Ambassador Rice stated: “We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity,” and added: “Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.” So why the veto?

Ambassador Rice, in common with other U.S. spokespeople simply said that, in the opinion of the Administration, adopting the Resolution would damage efforts to get peace negotiations underway, between Israel and the Palestinians. How exactly it would have done that, is not clear. It does not help one to understand, that the Ambassador expressed the conviction that, “This draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations and, if and when they did resume, to return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse.” On the contrary, the Resolution was meant to create the very conditions necessary for negotiations, namely the cessation of that “continued Israeli settlement activity” that the U.S. said “in the strongest terms” was not legitimate. And what is so wrong about a “return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse”? Is this not precisely what the UN Security Council is there for? And if, at some unspecified point in time, in the future, the U.S. felt strongly that an impending Resolution should be opposed, it could exercise its veto then, not now when the draft Resolution simply expressed principles and demands, with which the U.S. actually agrees! This now appears to be the thinking in Palestinian governing circles, as well as the opinion of some Israelis.

A common misperception in statements by some Israelis and Americans is that the cessation of “Israeli settlement activity” is an issue for the negotiations themselves. This is an obviously erroneous reading of the “Declaration of Principles,” the so-called “Oslo Agreement” that Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation signed on 13 September 1993, and which is the premise of the peace negotiations. There the issue of the “settlements” is indeed defined as a subject matter for the future peace treaty. The meaning, of course, is the fate of the settlements already built by that time, not whether Israel was free to engage in “continued settlement activity” in the time remaining before a peace treaty is signed. There is a universal legal principle, known to all, which means that one side to an ongoing dispute cannot continue to create new facts to alter the object of the dispute. In fact, “continued settlement activity” is prohibited by international law explicitly, as well. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, to which Israel is a party, forbids the occupying power from settling elements of its own population in occupied territory. And then there is a whole series of UN Security Council Resolutions, from the years following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, that specifically declare this “settlement activity” illegal and demands that Israel cease and desist forthwith from such activity; Resolutions passed and not vetoed by the U.S. In other words, the cessation of “settlement activity” is not an issue for negotiations at all, but a requirement of international law, irrespective of whether or not there are any negotiations. Such is the thinking of Palestinians, some Israelis and independent experts.

In the days just before the UN Security Council vote, the Administration tried very hard to persuade P.L.O. President Mahmoud Abbas, “Abu Mazen”, to withdraw the draft Resolution. Not only Secretary of State Clinton, but also President Obama himself, telephoned him for this purpose. They had tried very hard to spare themselves the need (why it was a need, is not understood, as already observed above) to veto a Resolution with which they actually agreed. They should have known that it was an impossible demand. Indeed, apart from anything else, how could they think that the Palestinian President could possibly accept their pleas (which at some point allegedly became implicit threats)? With all the turmoil in the Arab world, against the background of a Palestinian population living under military occupation for the last forty four years (!) and ever more despairing of their chances of freedom, how could President Abbas withdraw the draft Resolution, even if he personally had wanted to? Actually, if President Obama and Secretary Clinton had succeeded, it might have had catastrophic consequences. President Abbas and his organization would have been fatally discredited in “the Palestinian street,” with results that it is better not to think about.

Moreover, the nonviolent multipronged diplomatic strategy, on which President Abbas and his organization have now embarked, with special emphasis on the UN, is the best “antiterrorism” policy there is, in that the promise it holds helps prevent the anger and despair of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories from once more finding an outlet in “armed struggle” on a broad front. Obviously, to continue to be successful in preventing large-scale violence, this strategy also has to show results. Right now it is all geared towards an application for the Palestinian State to join the UN in September. At that time, President Abbas intends to hold parliamentary and presidential elections (his own mandate ran out early last year, at the latest). Recognition by the UN is the winning card in those elections. And it is none too soon for the U.S. (and Israel) to think how to handle that. The knee-jerk reaction in both Israel and the U.S. would be to oppose mightily the admission of the Palestinian State to the UN. Still they have time to think very seriously about whether it would be in their interest to do so. Such recognition could pose no threat to either the U.S. or Israel. On the contrary, it might be the best catalyst for successful peace negotiations between Palestine and Israel. The “external” dignity and responsibility, and the “internal” legitimacy that the Palestinian State would have as a consequence, should create the best conditions, internal and external, for serious peace negotiations between formal equals. What another veto by the U.S. at that time could bring about, is again one of those things that it is best not to think about – so some would say. What is, or should be, clear to all, is that the sudden convulsions in Egypt, and elsewhere in the Arab world, where the tectonic plates are still moving, should cure everyone – in Israel and in the U.S. – from knee-jerk, pre-programmed, reactions, and motivate them to fresh thinking, unchained from old “conceptions”.

Already by imposing the veto this time, the U.S. has taken great risks, and has gained no advantages – Palestinian statesmen, diplomats and commentators agree. Precisely in the present context in the Middle East, which holds mostly dangers, and few if any positive prospects, for U.S. (and Israeli) interests in the region, is it wise to discourage Palestinians from the nonviolent, diplomatic, strategy they have chosen in their attempt to stop the “settlement activity,” and to prevent more of their homes, land and water being taken away from them on a daily basis?

Has the U.S. done any favours thereby to Israel? While it is still too early to assess the full repercussions of the veto, it is certain that there are not lacking thoughtful Israelis who would answer this question in the negative – as does Gideon Levi, writing in the influential Israeli daily, Ha’Aretz. Israel’s prospects for peace, security and prosperity, depend on achieving a peace treaty with the P.L.O,, which means ending the military occupation and letting the Palestinians have their freedom to establish their own State, where they will be secure from further taking away of their homes, land and water. This is what diplomatic jargon now calls “the two-State solution.” But “continued settlement activity” is making this less and less possible, on a daily basis, in actual fact, on the ground. With every settler that is added, repatriating the settlers, bringing them back to the State of Israel, is becoming harder and harder. Already some Palestinians are speaking of giving up the “two-State solution” and simply demanding citizenship and their civil rights in a single State – a single State comprising the entire territory of the Holy Land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which is now divided between the State of Israel and a territory under military occupation (and, if you like, the small, narrow, but overpopulated Gaza Strip, which is, worryingly, under the effective control of a terrorist organisation). “Continued settlement activity” may make this inevitable. And for Israelis, this is the ultimate nightmare scenario. The Palestinian citizens of this unitary State would start by being a very large minority, and may soon enough become an actual majority. In either case, the Jewish State will cease to be; not cease to be a State, but cease to be the national State of the Jewish People. This nightmare scenario is what drives the mainstream “peace camp” in Israel, as represented, for example, by President Shimon Peres. They desire peace, not so much on the ground of  “humanitarian,” “universalist”, or “cosmopolitan intellectual” values, but for national, patriotic reasons. They are not necessarily any less “hard-headed,” or “nationalist” or “patriotic” than the pro-settlements right wing. They are just more realistic. As they themselves openly say, there will come a time when none of Israel’s Western friends, not even the U.S., will tolerate a State which dominates a large population of non-citizen subjects, who live under a military occupation régime, without civil rights. And a perpetuated “Palestinian Authority,” which administers only part of the occupied territory, and does so only semi-autonomously, will no more excuse this than the Bantustans in South Africa once did (or rather, did not).

The recent swift abandonment by the U.S. of its longtime ally, President Mubarak of Egypt - these Israelis say - should ring a warning bell. Today, Israel may still persuade the Administration to veto a UN Security Council Resolution, with which the U.S. actually agrees (!), but the quick American turn-around on Egypt means that this is not necessarily a guarantee for the future. As the famous characterization of U.S. international policy puts it,: “The United States has no permanent allies, only permanent interests”. In the present case, the U.S. has been persuaded to vote against its own interests, simply because an allied government asked it to, but the over-all logic of U.S. policy over time means that this may not always be so.

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