Saturday, February 19, 2011

With UNSC Veto, Obama is on the Wrong Side of History

If there was ever a tailor-made opportunity for Mr. Obama to show that he really means business about justice for the Palestinians, it arrived yesterday in New York.  Placed before the UN Security Council was a resolution tabled by Arab states, and supported by more than 120 co-sponsors, condemning ongoing Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank as illegal.  Again, for any who may have forgotten: such settlement construction is clearly illegal according to international law. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank has been condemned in several earlier UN resolutions as well as by the International Court of Justice.  And, the US's official position has been, all along, that the occupation is illegal - which is why, despite countless complaints from the Christian Zionist right in the US, the US still maintains its embassy in Tel Aviv, not in Jerusalem.

The US vetoed the resolution. NYT report is here; the LA Times report includes much more background on the history of condemnations of Israel's de facto colonization of the West Bank; the WaPo report is here, where Colum Lynch cuts to the chase right at the top:
The U.S. vote killed off a measure that was supported by the 14 other members of the Security Council and isolated the United States on a crucial Middle East matter at a time of political upheaval in the region.

Although U.S. officials have consistently criticized the settlement policy, a vote in favor of the resolution would have angered Israel and its U.S. supporters, including Republican lawmakers, who had urged the Obama administration to stand with Israel at all costs. . . .

the administration stood far apart from even its closest allies. Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement arguing that the resolution would have advanced the peace process.

Poor Susan Rice, the US rep to the UN, was reduced to mealy-mouthed statements to the effect that, golly, we really don't like those settlements, but the resolution is so unfair to Israel, and it would have just hardened the positions of both sides. The US's/Israel's official stance is that a resolution will come only from direct negotiations between the two sides during the ongoing, never-ending, doomed-to-failure "peace process" - the only discernible result of which is that it has allowed Israel to stall, string things along, buy time - pick your own metaphor for delay - in order to keep colonizing the West Bank to the point where there will be nothing left for a Palestinian state.  This, of course, is perfectly OK with the myopic Christian Zionist, mostly white Republican, AIPAC-bought Bible-bangers whose numbers in Congress got a huge boost from the November 2010 elections.

So, what exactly has Mr. Obama "achieved" with his veto:
  • Any remaining hopes that any in the Muslim world might have attached to his famous 2009 Cairo speech - which had become infinitesimally tiny before Friday's vote - are completely gone.
  • Palestinians will understand that they can expect nothing from the US as a broker for peace, or as a source of leverage with which to budge the Netanyahu government on any issues of real importance in "negotiations.'
  • Palestinians will understand that they will never get help - or justice - from the UN.  The US has the power, through its veto, to unilaterally squash any binding resolutions from the Security Council. The last time the US used its veto was almost 5 years ago, when Bush directed the US rep to veto a UNSC resolution demanding that Israel withdraw troops from the Gaza Strip. Yesterday's was Obama's first use of the US veto power.
  • With nowhere else to turn, Palestinians may conclude that they can rely only on themselves to make a difference.  Their options are non-violent protest or a new intifada.  With either, the IDF has the muscle to squelch it.  Congress would applaud the squelchers; most of the rest of the world might work harder to isolate Israel (and would be demonized as "anti-Semites" for their efforts); but the US would stand with Israel (after all, there's a presidential election coming in less than two years!).
  • As Lynch noted in the WaPo, the US has now isolated itself even more in the Middle East, at a time when the so-called moderate Arab allies are facing populist revolts (see Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan) and the major regional players have begun to stand up against the US and Israel.  Turkey's relations with Israel have soured, and show no signs of significant improvement.  The fall of Hosni Mubarak may bring a new Egyptian government that will distance itself from the US as well as put the already cold peace with Israel even deeper in the freezer.

It ought to be obvious by now that people across the Middle East - and led by its vocal, dissatisfied, and increasingly connected youth - are speaking out for a principle for which the US claims to be a shining beacon and a staunch advocate: self-determination.  They demand popular-elected, representative government, respect for Islam and Muslim institutions, and autonomy in international relations.  Despite Mr. Obama's shining words of encouragement to protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, the US historically has placed itself on the wrong side of those demands - backing autocrats whose support it has bought or bullied, and refusing to reach out to Islamist groups whose ideas (whether the US likes it or not) reflect the beliefs, values, and aspirations of millions of people.

In vetoing this UNSC resolution, Mr. Obama has placed the US on the wrong side of the issue of the Palestinians' right to self-determination.  By extension, he has placed the US on the wrong side of its own historical declarations of its beliefs and values.  In the process, he has deepened both the US's and Israel's global isolation by enabling both nations to thumb their noses at both global opinion and international law.  By so doing, he has also, I would submit hastened the day when
  •  Israel's legitimacy and viability - and with them, the Zionist dream - may be extinguished.
  • America's ability to influence events - and protect its interests - in the Middle East may be extinguished as well.

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