Obama Pressed to Wade Into Israel-Palestinian Fight Again

  • Debates on Israel’s settlements flare in Tel Aviv and at UN
  • Trump may respond sharply if Obama allows UN resolution

President Barack Obama waves after speaking on counterterrorism at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, on Dec. 6, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration failed to break the impasse between Israel and the Palestinians during eight years in office, is coming under pressure to act one last time as events in Israel and at the UN clash.

In Jerusalem, the parliament is debating legislation that would give official recognition to Israel’s expanding settlements in the disputed West Bank that were built without government approval. That, in turn, is bolstering efforts by United Nations Security Council members in New York who are circulating competing versions of a draft resolution that would condemn those settlements, or at least express the world body’s concern about them.

Obama may have to decide whether the U.S. should exercise its UN veto against a resolution criticizing all settlements, as it has in the past, or abstain and let the resolution go through despite the likelihood the move would be denounced and disavowed by President-elect Donald Trump.

An abstention “wouldn’t shock me,” said Dennis Ross, Obama’s former Middle East policy coordinator, even though the administration has been signaling for some time that Obama isn’t inclined to re-engage in the Israel-Palestinian question.

The U.S. would veto any formulation supporting Palestinian statehood, Ross said, but “a narrow resolution on settlements? That’s less far-fetched.”

Palestinian Ambassador

Spokesmen for Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, didn’t respond to a request for comment. A U.S. official, who discussed the issue on condition of anonymity, declined to speculate on hypothetical UN resolutions but said the administration remains concerned about the lack of progress toward a two-state solution and the need to reverse trends including violence and settlement activity.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian Authority’s ambassador to the UN, said in an interview Friday that the Obama administration was getting cold feet after showing initial willingness to consider a resolution on settlements.

“The Americans were saying wait till after the elections before pushing for this resolution,” said Mansour, who said he is scheduled to meet with Power on the issue on Dec. 13. “Now they are saying President Obama is looking at all options.”

Netanyahu’s Efforts

Determined to avert a confrontation with Obama during his final weeks in office, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do everything he can to delay the final vote on the Israeli settlements legislation until after Trump takes office, said Danny Ayalon, who was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2002 to 2006.

“He doesn’t want this bill, that’s for certain, but the political pressure he’s facing is huge,” Ayalon said in a telephone interview. “There’s a very good chance that his government could fall apart over this.”

Read more about the Israeli parliament vote on settlements.

Competing drafts of UN resolutions are being circulated among the 15 Security Council members by the Palestinians and by New Zealand.

Both resolutions call for a return to negotiations to keep the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine alive and both express concern about Israel’s settlements. The Palestinian draft condemns “all settlement activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem” as illegal and an obstacle to peace. The New Zealand version is much milder in its criticism and also calls on Palestinian authorities to stop inciting violence, according to diplomats who had seen the drafts.

Since the 1967 war, Israel has built some 120 Jewish settlements across the West Bank that were authorized by the government. More than 100 other outposts were built illegally over the last two decades, and Israeli courts have ruled many should be removed.

Read more about the rise and fall of the two-state solution -- QuickTake

Palestinians and most member countries in the UN consider all the settlements illegal under international law governing occupied territories. Israel says the lands are disputed and their status can be resolved only in peace negotiations.

Since 1990, the U.S. has used its veto 14 times on behalf of Israel. In 2011, the U.S. vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have declared the settlements “illegal.” The U.S. calls the settlements “illegitimate” while avoiding debates over their legality.

Trump on Jerusalem

Obama would have to weigh acceptance of a UN resolution criticizing settlements against the prospect of a strong reaction by Trump, who could forcefully disavow the move and support Israel’s right to build settlements. Trump has promised a closer relationship with Israel, after years of prickly relations between Obama and Netanyahu.

“We do not know what Trump will do, but I think one of the takeaways of eight years of the Obama administration is that the U.S. non-differentiated approach” toward disapproving of settlements generally hasn’t worked, said David Makovsky, a former member of the U.S. negotiating team with Israel and the Palestinians who is now at the Washington Institute.

Trump also could respond by doubling down on his campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. While Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush had vowed to do so as well, they never made the move, which could further undermine prospects for peace talks. The Palestinians also lay claim to Jerusalem.

In Israel, Netanyahu, who heads the Likud party, holds power through an alliance with five other parties in a coalition government that gives him a majority of 67 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If his coalition partner and rival Naftali Bennett were to withdraw his eight members, Netanyahu’s government would collapse.

“If Bennett won’t budge, he will have no choice but to let the bill pass,” Ayalon said. Bennett, who vigorously supported the legislation, is a former leader of the Yesha Council, a lobbying group for settlers.

If Obama decides to abstain at the Security Council and the resolution passes, “it would be very very damaging not just to Israel but also to U.S. interests and any chance for the peace process to succeed,” Ayalon said. “Frustration is not a good recipe for policy-making.”

— With assistance by Justin Sink

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE