Politics & Policy

Obama’s Shameful Parting Shot at Israel

President Obama with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House in 2011. (Reuters photo: Jim Young)

In a parting, spiteful shot at Israel, the Obama administration permitted a U.N. Security Council resolution to pass that seeks to permanently change the international legal status of so-called Israeli “settlements” in Jerusalem and the disputed West Bank. Departing from almost 50 years of bipartisan American precedent — and from the administration’s own past practice — the Obama administration abstained from a vote for the resolution demanding that Israel “cease all settlement activities” and declaring that all existing settlements were in “flagrant violation” of international law.

Just yesterday the resolution appeared dead, as Egypt, the resolution’s original sponsor, withdrew it under pressure from the incoming Trump administration. The president-elect took the unusual step of injecting himself into a U.N. controversy before taking office precisely because the Obama foreign-policy team was broadcasting its intent to abstain. Incredibly, however, four nations with precisely zero security interests at stake in the Middle East — New Zealand, Malaysia, Venezuela, and Senegal — revived the resolution and forced a vote.

The administration’s fecklessness has harmed Israel, endangers ordinary Israelis, and hurts the elusive quest for an enduring peace. Moreover, the Trump administration is powerless to revoke the resolution: It would have to introduce and pass a new resolution, and either Russia or China would be sure to veto it. Thus, Israel will find itself at the bargaining table in any future peace negotiation with Palestinian territorial demands backed by the U.N.’s most powerful body.

By declaring that settlements — including “settlements” in Israel’s capital — violate international law, the resolution purports to carve into stone the armistice lines that existed at the end of Israel’s war for independence. Yet these lines didn’t become lawful permanent borders precisely because hostile Arab nations specifically refused to recognize the existing battle lines as Israel’s border, specifically declined to create a Palestinian state, and instead maintained a posture of armed hostility to Israel. Indeed, since the West Bank hasn’t been part of a sovereign nation since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the so-called occupied territories aren’t truly “occupied” under international law. They’re more accurately termed “disputed” territories, with the precise resolution of the dispute to be negotiated by the relevant parties.

The administration’s fecklessness has harmed Israel, endangers ordinary Israelis, and hurts the elusive quest for an enduring peace.

There are implications for ordinary Israelis as well. If an Israeli lives in a suburb of Jerusalem, is he or she now a criminal? Can he be arrested and tried in activist courts in Europe or in international legal tribunals? Radical U.N. action will only harden Palestinian intransigence and worsen already rising anti-Semitism (thinly disguised as anti-Zionism) on the international left. To put this radical resolution in context, under its terms, it is now an alleged violation of international law that the Western Wall remains in Israeli hands.

It’s difficult to interpret the Obama administration’s actions as anything other than a parting shot at Israel and its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Obama administration’s frustrations with the Netanyahu government are well known, but now was hardly the time to break with almost 50 years of American policy, and frustration or spite were hardly sufficient reasons. As Trump said in his statement, if there is to be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, “it will only come through direct negotiations between the parties and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations.”

The world will soon move on from Barack Obama, but he’s doing his best to extend his legacy of failure and appeasement. The Palestinians deserved a rebuke. Instead they received a gift. Our closest Middle Eastern ally will pay the price.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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