Tel Aviv — The scenario that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long been worrying about — a lame-duck President Obama paving the way for a Palestinian state before he leaves his office — has arrived. And it may get worse.
For more than a year, Netanyahu has been concerned that Obama, unshackled from electoral constraints, could promote game-changing steps that Israel would not like, before Jan. 20.
Last Friday, the administration abstained on a controversial United Nations Security Council resolution that calls for a full and complete stop of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and building in east Jerusalem, designation post-1967 Israeli-held territory as “illegal.”
Furious, Netanyahu assailed the resolution as a “disgrace” that unilaterally favors the Palestinians without giving Israel anything in return. Focusing the blame on the Obama administration, the prime minister and his aides say there is “no doubt” the outgoing U.S. administration secretly initiated the proposal behind the scenes and pushed it through the Security Council.
But Netanyahu and his aides fear there is more to come now that the gloves are off.
With Secretary of State John Kerry delivering a valedictory speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this week and France planning to hold an international peace conference in Paris in January, Israeli officials are worried the Kerry remarks could gain momentum at the peace conference and then wind up being enshrined in another UN Security Council resolution on the conflict — just as administration officials are cleaning out their offices.
“The president is not a lame duck. He’s a roaring duck,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who is now a deputy minister for diplomacy in the prime minister’s office. “These are deeply held views by the president. The main reason is ideology.”
Even though such peace principles would come in the final days of an administration largely unsuccessful at advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, they could take on a life of their own, Oren warned in an interview with The Jewish Week.
“It would have staying power because it could be used in international forums. It could be used to delegitimize Israel,” Oren said. “If Kerry lays them out, they are no longer his own; it’s the province of the international community.”
An effort to deter the international community from new action on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might explain the series of diplomatic retaliatory measures ordered by Netanyahu: a cut in aid to Senegal, summoning ambassadors to the foreign ministry for a diplomatic dress-down; and a decision to scale back working ties with the countries on the Security Council that backed the resolution.
The daily Yediot Achronot newspaper reported that Netanyahu hopes to promote sanctions with the new Trump administration against countries that voted in favor of the resolution at the U.N.
Analysts said it will be much more difficult for members of the Security Council to agree on a full set of peace principles than on the settlement resolution.
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“My own personal preference would have been to go to the Security Council with a new 242,” said former prime ministerial advisor Yossi Alpher, referring to the Security Council resolution that called on Israel and the Arabs to trade land for peace. “To lay out the broad parameters of what Israelis and Palestinians have to do [for a peace deal], not focusing on settlements — to create international standards of what the two-state solution should look like.”
Meanwhile, pressure is rising on Netanyahu from pro-settler politicians to decide on the annexation of settlements in the West Bank and approve a wave of new building — a retaliation referred to in Israel by code as “the suitable Zionist response.”
Earlier this week, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meir Turjeman vowed to defy the UN by pushing for around 5,000 new housing units in east Jerusalem, including an unbuilt planned neighborhood that critics say could make territorial compromise impossible.
The hope and expectation is that President-elect Donald Trump will not object.
“I’m not upset by the United Nations or by any other entity that tries to dictate to us what to do in Jerusalem,” Turjeman, who oversees planning and construction in the city, wrote on his Facebook page. “I hope that the government and new administration in the U.S. give us momentum to keep building and fill the shortfall created during the eight years of the Obama administration.”
But analysts say Netanyahu will seek to avoid announcing any dramatic wave of building in the West Bank or east Jerusalem as long as Obama is in office. The prime minister has been on the defensive following the resounding defeat on the Security Council vote. Newspaper commentators have chastised him for clashing too often with Obama and going too far to curry favor with pro-settlement politicians in his coalition, like entertaining legislation to retroactively legalize settlement activity on Palestinian property.
The U.N. vote also seemed to repudiate, in a dramatic way, the prime minister’s arguments over the last year that Israel’s economic and security ties with Africa and the Far East would eventually overtake Israel’s international isolation on the settlement issue.
“After 50 years of winking, leading astray and self-deceiving, the world is trying to tell us, with a majority of 14 versus zero, the moment of truth has arrived,” wrote Nahum Barnea in Yediot Achronot. “We cannot continue building settlements and praying for peace at the same time.”
Netanyahu said his harsh response to the U.N. resolution reflects national “pride” and strength that engenders respect from Israel’s rivals. Meanwhile, he accused Israeli critics of having an exile-like mindset. But the criticism of Netanyahu’s moves was not limited to the opposition. Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister, suggested that the prime minister’s order to scale back contacts and diplomatic visits to countries that supported the resolution would hurt Israel’s ability to explain its position.
“The overreaction is symptomatic of the fact that I think he knows that this is a mistake, that he messed up,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University and an expert on U.S.-Israeli relations. “He understood that by placating the ideological right he created a position where it was easy for Obama to do what he did. He made a choice to consolidate and maintain his right-wing base, and there’s a price for that.”