Israelis/Palestinians

Obama Fulfills His Prophecy on Israeli Settlements

Friday's U.N. vote deepened Israel's isolation. That's what the White House wanted.

A lot of history.

Photographer: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

The way the White House tells it, the U.S. had no choice. For eight years, President Barack Obama has been pleading with Israel to stop building settlements. But they didn't listen. So reluctantly, the president instructed his United Nations ambassador to abstain from a Security Council resolution that affirmed for the first time in 36 years that every Jewish home in East Jerusalem and the West Bank was a "flagrant violation of international law."

QuickTake Israeli Settlements

Ben Rhodes, Obama's speechwriter and deputy national security adviser, whined about this on Friday after the vote. "There's a huge record on this, and I think it's very unfair and inaccurate to suggest that somehow this was an outcome that we sought," he said. "If it was an outcome that we sought, we would have done this long ago."

I don't believe him. Obama's decision to break precedent by declining to veto Friday's resolution looks entirely premeditated.

Let's start with what the Israelis themselves are saying. After the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would be sharing information with the Donald Trump transition team that proves how the U.S. lobbied other countries behind the scenes to support the resolution. He has not made this public, but Israeli officials tell me it is based in part on what many Arab envoys told Israeli diplomats in private.

We also know, because it has been publicly reported, that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about this resolution last month with his counterpart in New Zealand, whose envoy introduced the resolution. As Liel Liebowitz pointed out this week in Tablet,  this is particularly rich given New Zealand's own unsavory history of driving natives off of their land.

Another piece of supporting evidence is that this kind of U.N. action was included in a 2015 policy memo drafted after Netanyahu won re-election and promised supporters there would be no Palestinian state while he was in power. Netanyahu reversed himself after the victory.

QuickTake U.S.-Israel Relations

But the Obama administration was nonetheless determined to punish him. As White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said in 2015, "We cannot simply pretend that those comments were never made, or that they don’t raise questions about the prime minister’s commitment to achieving peace through direct negotiations." 

The Israelis themselves certainly saw it coming. Michael Oren, a Knesset member and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told me on Monday that the Knesset held in-depth hearings to prepare for what Obama would do to Israel in the window between the Nov. 8 election and the Jan. 20 inauguration. "We were not surprised because I know the worldview, I know the president's determination," Oren said. "He doesn't give up on things."

Then there is the timing. Perhaps Obama never wanted to have done this "a long time ago," as Rhodes said. But if he had, he would have faced serious blowback within his own party -- scores of Democrats released statements on Friday expressing bewilderment about how the U.S. abstention would advance the peace process.

Politically, the resolution would have been a gift to Republicans before an election. Imagine the campaign commercial saying Obama wouldn't stop genocide in Syria but makes Jewish homes in Jerusalem illegal.

Obama himself has been attuned to the sensibilities of the pro-Israel community in election years. This year he pushed to complete a 10-year agreement to extend U.S. military aid so that it was signed in the fall.

All of this gets to the strongest reason why it's best to take Rhodes's protestations with a heaping of salt. The Obama foreign-policy narrative is often at odds with his real foreign policy. To illustrate this, consider a relatively small example. In April of 2015, Rhodes told CNN that the Iran nuclear agreement would require Iran to submit to "anytime, anywhere inspections" of its nuclear facilities. By July though, when the deal was finally signed, that promise was no longer operative. Instead, the Iranians were able to limit access for U.N. inspectors to its Parchin facility to the point where the Iranian themselves collected the soil samples.

With this U.N. vote we see the same pattern. Announcing the decision to abstain from the U.N. vote, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said, "Our vote today is fully in line with the bipartisan history of how American presidents have approached both the issue and the body." Obama's supporters have repeated this thought since Friday: Every U.S. president since 1968 has urged Israel to stop building settlements; past presidents have not vetoed other Security Council resolutions critical of Israel.

That is true. It's also deceptive. The last president who allowed the Security Council to declare that all of East Jerusalem was occupied territory was Jimmy Carter in 1980. This was before the Oslo Peace accords. This was before the modern U.S.-Israel security relationship. This was at a time when U.S. presidents did not say that Palestinians should have their own state.

Since the early 1990s, presidents have upheld the view that the status of Jerusalem should be negotiated between the parties and not adjudicated at the U.N. This was Obama's position in 2011 when the U.S. vetoed a similar resolution. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, President George W. Bush even promised Israel that the U.S. recognized the validity of some Jewish neighborhoods and population centers in and around Jerusalem. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas privately agreed to swapping Jewish population centers for other concessions in negotiations with Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert.

Obama abandoned Bush's commitment in his first year in office. Then in 2011, he said U.S. policy would no longer consider legitimate any existing Jewish settlements outside Israel's pre-1967 borders unless ratified by peace negotiations. On Friday, after he was no longer running for office and after Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, he allowed the U.N. to make his policy a matter of international law.

Some might say this was a long time coming. Obama has been warning since he came into office that Israel's decision to keep building on land it captured in the Six Day War of 1967 would lead to its international isolation. He just never bothered to tell us that he would abet that isolation as his presidency came to a close.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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