In the dying days of his presidency, Barack Obama caused a diplomatic storm on Friday by doing nothing.
The US abstention on a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution condemning Israeli settlements has left Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu furious – but observers are divided over how much difference the vote will actually make.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
There was nothing new to the substance of UNSC Resolution 2334, which reaffirmed long-standing positions of the international community, including previous UNSC resolutions, about the illegality of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory. So, was that enough to prompt outrage from Netanyahu and his coalition partners?
Nadia Hijab, executive director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, notes the significance of paragraph 5, which calls on “all States … to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967”. This, she told Al Jazeera, “is effectively a call to cease trade, economic and financial transactions with the settlements”.
This is likely to boost growing efforts to subject Israel to various forms of boycotts, including the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign – especially since, as Hijab notes, “the settlements are an integral part of the Israeli economy”.
However, many Palestinians are under no illusions about Obama’s overall record during his two terms. As Diana Buttu, analyst and former adviser to Palestinian negotiators, commented: “Prior to this vote, the Obama administration had been the only US administration since 1967 that had prevented the Security Council from condemning Israel’s illegal actions.”
Indeed, Obama exercised the US veto in 2011 to block a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity, while during his two terms, signed an unprecedented military aid package and backed Israel through two significant assaults on the Gaza Strip, including the brutal 2014 offensive. For many, therefore, the decision to abstain (though not vote in favour) is too little, too late.
Meanwhile, it appears that the resolution “caught Israel by complete surprise”, Channel 2 journalist Meron Rapoport told Al Jazeera.
“Just at the moment when Netanyahu was enjoying the prospect of a pressure-free Israel under the coming Trump administration, this resolution came and brought him brutally down to earth,” Rapoport said, noting that while it is not clear what tangible impact it will have on Israel, the resolution “will surely limit Israel’s freedom of manoeuvre”.
At the end of the day, this resolution is intended to salvage a two-state solution that Israel killed off with settlement construction years ago.
Yet the reaction by Israeli politicians – economy minister Naftali Bennett, for example, declared that failing to oppose the resolution equated to support for “terrorism” – seems utterly disproportionate, considering that the wording in many ways simply echoes the language of the peace process. Criticism of settlements, for example, is balanced with condemnation of “terror” and “incitement”, a common complaint levelled at the Palestinian Authority by Israeli authorities.
Indeed, although the resolution “avoided several pitfalls present in draft resolutions some months previously”, Hijab told Al Jazeera, such as giving in to Israel demands that it be recognised as a “Jewish state”, the “exclusive focus” on settlements came at the omission of any reference to the rights of Palestinian refugees.
The resolution appears to be as much about the international guardians of the “peace process”, the United States and Europe in particular, as it is about Israel and the Palestinians themselves. The resolution comes from a place of growing disquiet among Israel’s allies, as shown in numerous statements by European and American officials, about the direction being taken by the Netanyahu government.
In Washington, this concern has been intensified, especially within the Obama administration, by the prospect of a Trump presidency. Trump’s approach to Israel looks likely to be shaped by senior advisers who openly back Israeli colonisation of the occupied Palestinian territory.
For an Israeli government including explicit opponents of Palestinian statehood, this could be a green light for steps such as annexation of all or part of the West Bank.
“At the end of the day,” said Buttu, “this resolution is intended to salvage a two-state solution that Israel killed off with settlement construction years ago.” Buttu added that it is “long past time to start looking for alternative ways to realise the rights of Palestinians outside of a two-state framework that was never really a lasting solution in the first place.”
Events this week have shown how much the Israeli government has utter disdain for, yet simultaneously fears, international law and accountability. The resolution is unlikely to make a difference in and of itself, as there are already multiple UNSC resolutions condemning various Israeli policies, but there has been a lack of political will to enforce them.
It remains an open question, therefore, whether this resolution will lead to meaningful pressure on the Netanyahu government. While the vote in New York certainly constituted a diplomatic defeat for Israel, exactly what sort of victory it represents for the Palestinians remains to be seen.