Just Got Harder in the Middle East
By Elliott Abrams
and Michael Singh
December 24, 2016
Sizing up the Israeli-Palestinian conflict upon assuming
office, President Obama decided Israeli settlements were the problem, and he
insisted on a total freeze on construction. What followed were eight years of
deadlock, the deterioration of U.S. relations with Israelis and Palestinians
alike, and widespread disillusionment with the two-state solution.
Despite this track record, Obama is leaving off where he
began: I n a departure from Washington’s typical role as Israel’s defender
at the United Nations, the United
States refused to use its veto and allowed the adoption of a
Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
For his part, President-elect Donald Trump had urged that
the United States veto the resolution. Trump’s argument wasn’t merely that
Obama should defer to his successor’s views or that the resolution was
anti-Israel. It was that the measure would impede rather than advance
Israeli-Palestinian peace — and he was right.
First, the resolution fails to distinguish between
construction in the so-called blocs — that is, settlements west of Israel’s
security barrier in which about 80 percent of settlers live — and construction
east of the barrier. Building in the major blocs is relatively uncontroversial
in Israel and rarely the subject of Palestinian protests.
President George W. Bush sought to move peace talks forward
in 2004 by asserting what all sides had already tacitly acknowledged — that
there could be no return to the 1967 lines in light of the blocs’ existence,
and that any negotiated border would have to reflect this reality. By refusing
to confirm Bush’s position, Obama dragged the process backward and harmfully
reopened old debates.
This regression is enshrined in the resolution, which “underlines
that it will not recognize any changes” to the armistice lines, and
demands the cessation of all settlement activities everywhere. This is
unnecessary and unrealistic — Israelis will not bring life to a halt in towns
that no one disputes they will keep — and is more likely to obstruct than
facilitate the revival of peace talks.
Second, the resolution rewards those who argue for
“internationalization” of the conflict — that is, for using international
forums such as the U.N., European Union or International Criminal Court to
impose terms on Israel, rather than resorting to negotiations.
For the resolution does indeed dictate terms to Israel, not
merely condemn settlement activity. It adopts, as noted above, the position that
the 1967 lines, rather than today’s realities, should form the basis of talks
— despite the fact that many Israeli communities east of those lines are
decades old and that Jews have had a near-continuous presence in the West Bank
for thousands of years.
It implicitly prejudges the disposition of East Jerusalem
— one of most contentious issues dividing the parties — by characterizing
Israeli construction as settlement activity, a stance Israelis reject. The
resolution would demand an absolute halt to construction in East Jerusalem, even
in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, something no Israeli government ever
would agree to do.
Yet the resolution is conspicuously silent on Israeli
concerns. There is no call for other states to recognize Israel’s existence
— much less its status as a Jewish state — and end the conflict against it.
On incitement and terrorism, it strikes a false balance by calling on “both
parties” to refrain from them, despite the fact that Israel prosecutes its
citizens who resort to terrorism while the Palestinian Authority lionizes them.
Ironically, though from an Israeli perspective this
language may favor the Palestinians, reasonable Palestinians may suffer from it.
Because the resolution, untethered as it is to any prospective diplomatic
initiative or opening, will fail to yield improvements on the ground, it will
further discredit the very notion of diplomacy and compromise as paths to peace
and weaken those who champion them.
Finally, U.S support for the resolution lends legitimacy
and encouragement to the U.N.’s disproportionate and one-sided focus on
Israel. The United States has historically criticized this bias, which borders
on the absurd: For example, Israel was the only country criticized by a special
U.N. commission on the status of women, despite being the only state in its
region where women enjoy equal rights.
Decades of such discrimination have not made Israel more
accommodating to its critics, and this resolution won’t either. Instead it
will reinforce Israelis’ mistrust of the U.N., thus eroding the Security
Council’s capacity to contribute to the peace it professes to advance.
A U.S. veto of the resolution would not have been an
endorsement of settlements. Rather, it would have been an affirmation that this
is an issue that can only effectively be addressed through negotiations. The
best way to encourage those negotiations is not to prejudge their outcome or set
timetables, but to create the right regional conditions for them by countering
spoilers such as Iran and the Islamic State who oppose peaceful coexistence, as
well as the right local conditions for them by reinvigorating programs aimed at
building confidence through economic and security cooperation.
Peace in the Middle East will not be accomplished through a
U.N. vote. Rather, it will require renewed U.S. leadership in the region and the
rebuilding of relationships of trust with all of our partners there. This is
where the next administration should start.