“…international law is not an empty promise,” Barack Obama, the US president, told a large audience of heads of states at the UN General Assembly this Thursday. Obama also said there were “consequences” for the defiance of international law. But this was not a general statement. Obama was referring specifically to Iran and the UN Security Council resolution which imposed strict sanction on Iran last June. No surprises here, though many would have like the American President to take a more hard-line position on Iran.
The highlight of his speech though was the so-called Middle East peace process. Interestingly, when talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, or the Question of Palestine
as it is called at the UN, Obama made a point of not referring to International Law or ‘consequences’. It’s no surprise, really. In fact, it’s in line with long-standing US policy on this issue. But the irony, the contradiction is too glaring not to point out.
American Foreign policy has long ensured the United Nations and International Law remained out of the conflict in the Middle East in terms of “consequences”. And even though the Question of Palestine is the longest standing item on the UN agenda, successive American Administrations have always maintained the UN and its organs any effective participation in the resolution of its conflict.
Over the decades, the UN General Assembly, Security Council and other bodies of the organization have adopted several resolutions on the issue, this policy has ensured these resolutions
remained toothless, without the possibility of application. This policy has also obstructed repeated efforts by the majority of Members at the United Nations to impose any consequences to the defiance of these resolutions.
Still, every year, the UN General Assembly adopts over a dozen resolutions under the item ‘Question of Palestine’ on issues ranging from the illegality of settlements and Jerusalem to Palestinians’ rights over their natural resources. Palestinians consider these resolutions a legal reference that preserves their rights and in other cases, like the advisory opinion of the ICJ, a legal tool with which to advance their cause.
But this Thursday, Obama reiterated this long-standing policy by implying that more resolutions adopted by the international organization would simply be of no use…
“We can table the same resolutions. We can further empower the forces of rejectionism and hate. We can waste more time by carrying forward an argument that will not help a single Israeli or Palestinian child achieve a better life.”
Obama also literally flipped the Arab Peace Initiative
on its head. Calling on Arab states to encourage Israel by normalising ties with it, Obama ignored two things: The Arab Peace initiative, which was also endorsed by the Organization of Islamic Conference, promises normalised ties when Israel ends its occupation of Arab land, not before. Additionally, and quite ironically perhaps, Obama ignored the fact that Israel has yet to officially accept the initiative. In fact, it has consistently rejected
Obama’s speech was loaded with talk about peace, prosperity, dignity, and freedom. But in his attempt to strike a balance, Obama hit a sour note. By describing Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people, Obama overtly endorsed Israel’s rejection of UN resolution 194
, which states that Palestinian refugees have the right to return to the homes they fled or were forcibly expelled from in 1948 [present-day Israel]. This is a crucial final status issue that could torpedo any peace deal, should the parties succeed in reaching one.
The “slaughter” of Israelis, Obama said, was an “injustice”, but he made no reference to Palestinians killed nor the well-documented gross violations
of Palestinian human rights and indignities endured by Palestinians as they live under occupation. In a way, Obama handed his critics in the region a powerful weapon because this omission would undoubtedly be interpreted as reflecting the US’s indifference to Palestinian lives and rights.
The American president was applauded when he said the UN would receive a full member, Palestine, by next year if an agreement is reached. That’s a positive “incentive” for Palestinians, who along with the Holy See now have an Observer seat at the UN and its organs.
But Obama conditioned this membership to an agreement. So what would the US do if the parties do not reach an agreement by next year? Will it indefinitely postpone Palestinian statehood, which according to the Oslo Accords of 1993 should have been realized by 1999? Will he veto Palestinian statehood if it is not reached in the confines of his Administration’s process?
Palestinians will welcome Obama’s call on Israel to extend the moratorium on settlement construction, which according to Peace Now was never really implemented. The issue of settlement construction and Israel’s refusal to respect international law in this regard continues to threaten the direct talks with early failure.
Obama did not talk about consequences of actions or inactions. And he did not mention the most central of points: this conflict is about occupation, not a dispute. That the process his Administration champion puts occupier and occupied on an imaginary equal footing leaving it up to the occupied to convince the occupier to end its occupation although this occupation has so far had no “consequence”.
But Obama, along with the overwhelming majority of UN members, want to see a Palestinian state. New spirit? Perhaps… New rules? Not quite… The rules of this conflict, it seems, remain the same… set far apart from those applying to all other issues and conflicts.