The Obama administration has been seeking a way to avoid vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel. It has floated the idea of meeting Israel’s critics halfway with a U.N. “presidential statement” calling Israeli settlements “illegitimate.” Whether or not such a statement is actually issued, the very idea is a mistake. Indeed, we have here in this single idea a display of multiple foreign-policy failures of this presidency. Let us count the ways the administration’s proposed action has already injured Israel and the United States.
For one thing, the U.N. condemnation put forward by the president puts Israel, our closest ally in the region, in an untenable position. In exchange for peace, previous Israeli governments offered radical border concessions, surrendering most of the West Bank and even portions of Jerusalem. In 2005, the government of Ariel Sharon withdrew from the Gaza Strip, uprooting thousands of its own citizens. Yet all such proposals and steps toward peace have been met by Palestinian rejection, by intifadas, by suicide bombings, and by Qassam rocket fire. Isolated more than ever in the region, Israel must now contend with the fact that its principal backer in the world, the United States, is seeking to ingratiate itself with Arab opinion at its expense. Will an increasingly tenuous relationship with the U.S., at the very moment when it is becoming more vulnerable, encourage Israel to be as flexible as it has in the past, or the reverse? The answer is clear.
For another thing, even on its own terms of supposedly promoting the Arab-Israeli peace process, this is not a step forward but a step back. By taking up and embracing a core Palestinian demand, as the president has done repeatedly on this issue over the past two years, the United States is removing incentives for the Palestinians to parley with Israel at all. They are induced to believe that they can simply wait until their demands are handed to them on a silver platter by Washington. The administration’s contemplated compromise in the U.N. thus would punish Israel and reward Palestinian intransigence.
The harm wrought by the Obama administration’s diplomatic decisionmaking is doubly driven home by the fact that it is taking place in that chamber of double-standards, the United Nations. For decades the U.N. has been the epicenter of the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel, a campaign that has often devolved into naked anti-Semitism. Democratic and Republican administrations alike have long resisted this vicious business. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who in 1975 denounced the U.N.’s “Zionism Equals Racism” resolution as an obscenity, and it was Pres. George H. W. Bush who in 1991 won its repeal. The Obama administration is abysmally remiss in departing from our proud tradition of standing by a democratic ally when the world’s most unsavory regimes gang up on it.
Finally, the episode reveals a strategic failure that transcends mishandling of the Israeli-Palestinian problem alone. For its first two years, the Obama administration downplayed the importance of promoting democracy around the world. Reflexively shunning the foreign-policy approach of its predecessor, it sought to engage adversaries like Iran and North Korea, coddle autocratic allies, and distance itself from democratic friends.
True, over the last few days the administration has belatedly recognized that, in the wake of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world, supporting aspirations for human freedom might be important. It has finally, for example, issued strong statements condemning the Iranian ayatollahs for their violent suppression of the democratic opposition. But one step forward, two steps backward. President Obama’s decision to lean hard on Israel has the U.S. once again currying favor with dictators and distancing itself from democrats.
Putting forward a misbegotten U.N. statement as a compromise was a tactical, strategic, and moral mistake. The administration may conceive of its action as a low cost, split-the-difference gesture, but it has harmed an ally, sent a dangerous signal of inconstancy to allies and adversaries alike, and betrayed basic American principles. That’s three mistakes in one. I hope in the end the U.S. vetoes the anti-Israel resolution, but significant damage has already been done.