Two cheers for Obama’s UN vote on Israeli settlements

Like its break with decades of a U.S. policy of hostility and isolation toward Cuba, the Obama administration, with its recent United Nations vote, broke with another longstanding, unjustifiable element of U.S. foreign policy: automatic, unconditional diplomatic protection of Israel at the UN.

By abstaining on a Security Council resolution to censure Israel over its ever-expanding settlements on Palestinian lands, Obama showed better judgment and more courage than any other president in over half a century.

In past decades, the United States blocked every UN resolution condemning Israel regardless of the outrages committed by that country: illegally seizing greater and greater chunks of Palestinian land; savage bombings against Lebanon, which killed many civilians and destroyed a significant portion of the country’s infrastructure; an attack against a civilian Turkish flotilla by Israeli commandos which killed several Turks and one American; and several invasions and a continuing blockade of Gaza, which has produced an awful humanitarian toll. And that’s a short list.

But the question is whether the change in policy is too little and comes too late into the Obama administration to be sustainable. Here, too, parallels could be drawn with Cuba, but that’s not my subject today.

The abstention by the United States on the resolution, which censures Israel for establishing settlements that have no “legal validity” and are in “flagrant” violation of international law, is effectively equivalent to a “yes” vote and thus allowed the measure to pass.

Except for the Israelis, virtually no one in the world questions that these settlements are fragrantly illegal. The United States finally opted for the truth rather than for the “special relation.” That’s good news. An alliance based on a lie can only be a conspiracy of rogues.

Yet, by only abstaining rather than approving the resolution, unlike all other 14 members of the Security Council, the United States shows its continued obeisance to Israel and to the pro-Israel lobby in the United States (which includes not only Jews—and probably only a minority of Jews–but also many Evangelicals, some foreign policy hawks and many other interest groups).

And actions speak louder than words. In September, the United States approved a record $38 billion military aid package for Israel. This gargantuan grant dwarfs the entire annual foreign aid budget of the United States for the whole world, which is about $25 billion.

There are dozens of countries in the world that really need $38 billion for development, and in some cases, mere survival. Israel in contrast, is a developed country with a high-tech economy where no one starves. It has more than what it needs to defend itself: a nuclear arsenal estimated at 200 bombs and a formidable military.

Tens of thousands of lives, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, could be saved if this money were used to fight poverty and disease instead of giving it to Israel so it can use fearsome weapons of war in areas populated by a high number of civilians on the chance of taking out some terrorists.

Notwithstanding the U.S. largesse and diplomatic cover over decades, there was a furious reaction to the UN vote from all the likely suspects. Benjamin Netanyahu was apoplectic. I got a kick out of that. Netanyahu is not the worst leader in the world. Philippines President Duterte and a string of other sanguinary rulers are worse. But Netanyahu is surely a top contender for most obnoxious and arrogant. He repeatedly bites the hand—the only hand—that feeds him. He has a special animus toward President Obama, and has had the audacity of lecturing the president while a guest at the White House.

Republicans in Congress, President Donald Trump, and the pro-Israel coalition in the United States were furious too. Trump says he will “fix” things with Israel when he takes power. No doubt there is a lot he can do to show an even greater degree of U.S. favoritism toward Israel than it has shown in the last fifty years. The U.S. will also show its anger by punishing the UN through defunding (totally or partially). Even the threat of U.S. withdrawal from the UN has been entertained by parts of the ruling political class in the United States.

That’s saying that if I don’t make the rules I will take my ball and bat and go home. How can millions of Americans be baffled at the answer to the question, “why do ‘they’ hate us?” Nobody loves a bully or a bad sport.

The good news is that you can’t unbreak an egg and undoing this UN resolution will be almost as difficult since there would be zero support for such an action. This resolution will stand as evidence of a time when the world spoke with one voice concerning the core element—although hardly the sole one—of Israel’s shameful treatment of the Palestinians: stealing their land to preclude them from having a nation.

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