The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Illegitimate... but not illegal?

That phrase precisely describes the Obama administration's claim to leadership in the Middle East. It is also the factually wrong and conceptually confused defense of its decision to veto a Security Council resolution against Israel's settlement expansion that had wide support:

The Obama administration issued its first UN Security Council veto Friday, when U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice voted alone against a resolution declaring Israeli settlement activity to be illegal.

The 14-1 vote failed after Rice raised her hand alone to vote in opposition to the resolution, which had several dozen co-sponsors, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, Serbia, China, etc.

Rice said the U.S. vote against the resolution should not be misunderstood as U.S. support for Israeli settlement activity.

"On the contrary, we reject in the strongest possible terms the legitimacy of continued settlement activity," Rice told the Security Council after the vote. "For more than four decades, [Israeli settlement activity] has undermined security ...corroded hopes for peace and security ... it violates international commitments and threatens prospects for peace."

But, Rice said, "this resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides."

The British, Russian, and Chinese ambassadors were among those who rose to speak in favor of the failed resolution after the vote.

Though the U.S. vetoed the measure, given the seeming unanimity of other countries supporting the resolution, coupled with Rice's unhappy statement after her veto, Israel appeared increasingly isolated, as its neighborhood is in turmoil and changing rapidly in ways the United States cannot control.

It's rather morbid to read the detailed justification for this. From a State Dept. briefing:

QUESTION: Yes, Ambassador Rice, you say that you reject the continued building of settlements on the West Bank as being illegitimate. Yet you vote that no on a resolution that calls it illegal. Why is that, considering that the State Department, as far back as 1978, considered settlement activities illegal?

AMBASSADOR RICE: The United States has not characterized settlement activity as illegal since, I believe, 1980. And – but what we do believe firmly and have reiterated forcefully, including today, is that continued settlement activity is not legitimate. It’s corrosive to the peace process. It poses obstacles to achieving the goal that we think is vitally important of a two-state solution. And we were very clear that we have – we are in unity with the rest of the Security Council on the issue of the illegitimacy of settlements. The difficulty from our point of view is that a resolution on that issue at this time, which was unbalanced and one-sided, was most likely to harden positions and leave the two parties more entrenched and less willing to return promptly and constructively to the only vehicle that can achieve the goal of a two-state solution, and that’s direct negotiations.

QUESTION: Ambassador, why does that conflict? Why both of them are mutually exclusive, one another, in the peace process and voting for a settlement – declaring settlement activities as illegal?

AMBASSADOR RICE: Because any time you have a one-sided resolution that is aimed at trying to adjudicate core issues that need to be resolved and can only be resolved between the two parties, you are, at worst, setting back and complicating the efforts to achieve peace. And it is counterproductive to do so. Our aim had been, rather than end up with something that would have set the process back, was to put forward something that would have been a win-win and move the process forward in very concrete ways, increasing the effort and the attention of the Security Council, speaking with one voice on core issues in the manner that we hadn’t before. And unfortunately, that was not possible.

But the reality is that the goal of a two-state solution can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the parties, and we will continue our efforts to achieve that goal with great intensity.

Ben, is there anything you want to add?

MR. RHODES: Yeah. Yeah, I’d just add to that that with regard to settlements, I think from the very beginning of this Administration, the Presidents made it very clear and the Administrations made it very clear that we don’t accept the legitimacy of settlements. It’s a statement he’s made in Cairo, it’s a statement he’s made twice before the UN General Assembly, and it informs our approach to these issues. It takes place within the broader context of our efforts, and our dogged efforts, on behalf of a two-state solution and a comprehensive and lasting peace between a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestine. And right now, what we’re focused on is not simply one particular issue but the broader context that is necessary to move the parties toward peace. And our judgment is that we are going to use our efforts and our influence, again, to service that final goal.

And so that in that context, we put forward this package and we’ll go back again to roll up our sleeves and continue our persistent pursuit of peace going forward, because again, to us the issue is not, again, fixating on one particular issue, but rather looking at what we can do as the United States and as an international community to support a process that leads to two states living side by side in peace and security. So that’s the focus of U.S. policy, and within that context, we continue to see settlements as illegitimate and as corrosive to the process. And what we want to do is be creative and be dogged in working with the international community and working with Israelis and Palestinians to move in pursuit of what is our shared goal and a vision that the parties have mutually agreed to, which is a common pursuit through direct negotiations of two states living side by side in peace and security.

I can't stand the bullshit line that the resolution was damaging to the peace process (what peace process?). Not talking to Hamas is damaging to the peace process. Preventing Palestinian reconciliation is damaging to the peace process. Not speaking out against settlement expansion is damaging to the peace process. For once, I'd like the US Ambassador to the UN just clearly state: we are vetoing this not because of any rational reason or principle, but because most of Congress is scared of the Israel lobby and because the president's campaign financers includes major Zionist donors and we don't want to upset them. Some clarity and honesty, please. We have a Zionist problem in American politics and it's time to address it head-on.

Also, HRW outlines how damaging this is to the international law and positions the US had previously agreed with: Israel: US Veto on Settlements Undermines International Law | Human Rights Watch

I'm with him: The Magnes Zionist: Thank You, Mr. President