Author: MICHAEL WILNER
Posted on December 26, 2016
NEW YORK – It’s not like the US president thinks this will change anything.
That was the message President Barack Obama’s aides offered after the US, at his order, abstained from a landmark UN Security Council vote censuring Israel over its settlement enterprise.
White House officials knew this would only infuriate and entrench the Israeli government.
They knew they were too short on time in power to turn this bold move into an actionable point of leverage.
But years of private and public efforts had convinced them of two certainties: that they had tried everything to stop Israel from continuing settlement construction – which they are convinced erodes the possibility of a two-state solution – and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would stop at nothing to continue building.
Obama’s abstention was born of pure frustration among his top staff over the futility of their efforts. It was an acknowledgment of their failure, as they characterized the move as their least preferable option and one riddled with adverse consequences.
“It seems like the Israeli government wants the conversation to be about anything other than the settlement activity,” Ben Rhodes, a top national security adviser to the president, explained.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu recently described his own government as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history.’ Those are his words. And we’re concerned about these trends. We were concerned after our [November 8] election, when one of his leading coalition partners, Naftali Bennett, declared that ‘the era of the two-state solution is over.’”
US officials cite a quadrupling of settlers in the West Bank since Obama took office in 2009 and consider it a direct affront by the Israeli government, given the efforts expended by the president and his senior-most officials to try and maintain the semblance of a peace process.
Comments such as those from Bennett, as well as progress on a Knesset bill that would legalize other settler outposts, have rubbed salt into the Obama administration’s wounds, inflicted from years of fights with the Prime Minister’s Office.
Furthermore, the president and his team are watching a Trump administration enter power, explicit in its intent to reverse decades of US policy on settlements. Obama sought to remind Israel – and the world – that he was on the right side of history, even if history is beginning to warp in the other direction. That was what US envoy to the UN Samantha Power repeatedly noted in her explanation of the vote – in which she emphasized the longstanding, bipartisan nature of the move – and what US Secretary of State John Kerry argued in his own statement, expressing his “primary objective” of preserving a two-state solution.
“Here we are,” Rhodes said, “at least trying to establish that the international community is on the record.”
The president may personally dislike the prime minister – their relationship has been fractious for years. But more than simply sticking it to Netanyahu, Obama sought to codify in the clearest way he could a position he has always believed is in Israel’s long-term interests. Should the promise of a two-state solution survive Trump’s presidency, Obama hopes that Resolution 2334 will stand the test of time and remind his successors of a once-strong international consensus in favor of two states for two peoples.