The Stain Of Abstaining


Soon after President Obama took office almost eight years ago, he called for a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank, confident that he could achieve a Mideast peace agreement by extracting concessions from Israel.

Reluctantly, Israel complied and kept its promise for a 10-month duration. But the Palestinian Authority did not come to the peace table until a month before the deadline, and when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declined to extend the building freeze, he — not PA President Mahmoud Abbas — was blamed for the lack of progress.

Now, as Obama prepares to leave the Oval Office after two terms, nothing has changed in his attitude toward the root cause of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the leader he holds most responsible for the diplomatic impasse. He still sees the settlement issue as the key to resolving the problem rather than the Palestinian Authority’s consistent refusal to negotiate meaningfully or accept a Jewish state in the region.

In a meeting with Jewish leaders in July 2009, Obama observed that “when there is no daylight [between American and Israeli positions], Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.” That mindset still applies. As veteran U.S. envoy and negotiator Dennis Ross observed in his book on the U.S.-Israel relationship, “Doomed To Succeed,” Obama’s “instinct to simultaneously distance from Israel and move on peace contained a built-in contradiction.”

More than seven years later, it’s still there. The president’s decision last week to abstain from voting on a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements appears to be a personal and vindictive act against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It was not part of an overall effort to re-launch the dormant peace process. Rather, it was the culmination of years of frustration with the Israeli leader who did not share the president’s attempts to place the onus for inaction on Israel.

Granted, Netanyahu made matters worse in recent days by failing to halt or decry a Knesset effort to retroactively legalize Jewish settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land, and by proclaiming that “there has not been a government that showed more concern for settlement in the land of Israel and no government will show more concern.” Such sentiment doesn’t square with his declared support for a two-state solution.

Perhaps some accommodation on the prime minister’s part would have held off Obama’s decision to abstain at the UN. But it’s likely the president had already made up his mind to teach his diplomatic ally and political foe a lesson.

In allowing the vote to go forward, by a vote of 14-0, the president did not object to overturning the cornerstone element of America’s Mideast policy: that peace can only come to Israel and Palestinians through direct negotiations. Further, the U.S. did not object to the resolution calling all post-1967 war territory to be illegal and “in violation of international humanitarian law.” That would include the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, and does not distinguish between remote outposts and areas acknowledged to be part of Israel under any Mideast peace pact. If all post-’67 land is illegal, how could Israel use it as a bargaining tool in any future land-for-peace swap?

Even the resolution’s language, supposedly added to placate Israel by condemning terrorism against civilians, does not describe such violent acts as Palestinian-initiated; its vagueness allows critics of Israel to interpret such violence as coming from the IDF.

How deeply troubling that President Obama has made peace efforts all the more difficult now, emboldening the Palestinians to press harder against Israel and seek international support for statehood rather than deal directly with Israel, as the U.S. has long advocated. It is all too fitting that a president whose foreign policy has been described by his aides as “leading from behind” is closing out his Mideast efforts by abstaining, holding back, rather than protecting America’s closest Mideast ally from the UN’s full-voiced bias and prejudice.