Netanyahu Owes Us An Explanation (The Times of Israel, 27 December 2016)

Emotions are still running high in the wake of President Obama’s decision not to veto the recent Security Council Resolution on Israeli settlements (Resolution 2334).  Comments range from accusations of betrayal to thankful praise.  The Israeli government’s reactions have been mostly emotional and sometimes bizarre (Michael Oren claimed that the resolution’s underlying motivation is to annihilate Israel).  Foreign policy, however, is not meant to vent out emotions but to promote the national interest.  One needs to understand what the Resolution is about and what Israel can and should do about it.

Resolution 2334 actually repeats the content of previous Security Council resolutions, which were also deemed hostile by Israel and which were not vetoed by the United States.  Security Council Resolutions 446 (22 March 1979) and 452 (20 July 1979) declared that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to all territories conquered by Israel in June 1967 (including Jerusalem), and that Israeli settlements “have no legal validity.”  These resolutions passed because President Carter did not veto them.  Security Council Resolution 605 (22 December 1987), confirmed the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention and defined the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem itself as “occupied Palestinian territories.”  This resolution was not vetoed by President Reagan.  Security Council Resolution 1515 (19 November 2003) endorsed the Roadmap for Peace, which included a complete freeze of Israeli settlements (including for natural growth).  This resolution was not vetoed by President Bush.  Indeed, President Bush himself did not veto a Security Council resolution in the last days of his presidency: Resolution 1850 (16 December 2008) reiterated the endorsement of the Roadmap and, therefore, of an Israeli settlement freeze.

Resolution 2334 does introduce one new element, which constitutes a serious setback for Israel.  Article 3 of the resolution states that the Security Council “will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.”  Even though previous Security Council resolutions denied the legal validity of any Israeli presence beyond the 4 June 1967 line (the armistice lines of 1949), the new resolution makes it explicit that this line shall constitute Israel’s future eastern border.  As for possible changes “agreed by the parties through negotiations” they are moot since the Palestinians have rejected them in previous negotiations and continue to reject them (they have agreed, at most, to land swaps which would deny Israel any territorial gain).

By contrast to Resolution 2334, Resolution 242 left the question of final borders open.  In Resolution 242, Israel was expected to withdraw “from territories” to “secure and recognized boundaries.”  Israel’s final border was negotiable, and 242 implicitly recognized future changes to the 1949 armistice lines.  Resolution 2334 explicitly rejects them.  Israel, therefore, has been cornered on the border issue.

The implicit recognition by 242 of changes to the armistice lines of 1949 was made explicit by President George W. Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 14 April 2004.  The letter states that:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”  In July 2010, President Obama declined to publicly confirm the US Government’s commitment to this letter.  On 19 May 2011, President Obama declared that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.”  This statement left no room for Israeli territorial annexations beyond the 1949 lines (in a swap, annexations are mutual and net territorial gains nil).

By not vetoing 2334, President Obama has made it virtually impossible for Israel to change the 1949 lines to its advantage in future negotiations.  Israel has therefore a good reason to be upset.  But that outcome might have been prevented had Netanyahu been trustworthy and coherent –which he was not.

George W. Bush issued his 2004 letter based his understanding with Ariel Sharon that Israel would trade isolated settlements for the three settlement blocs.  It was a give-and-take, and the only way for Israel to modify the 1949 armistice lines to its advantage in accordance with 242.  This asset has been lost, not only because Obama was unsympathetic but also because Netanyahu was untrustworthy.

Since publicly accepting the idea of a Palestinian state in June 2009 (Bar-Ilan speech), Netanyahu has repeated many times his commitment to a two-state solution.  On the other hand, however, he has not frozen settlement construction (except for the nine-month moratorium imposed by the Obama Administration in November 2009).  In recent months, Netanyahu has gone out of its way to relocate the Amona settlement, and he has given in to political pressure to legalize unauthorized and isolated outposts.  Had it not been for those moves, Obama may have refrained from calling Netanyahu’s bluff.

As US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said at the Security Council: “The Israeli Prime Minister has recently described his government as more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history … At the same time [he] has said that he is still committed to pursuing a two-state solution.  But these statements are irreconcilable … One has to make a choice between settlements and separation.”  Exactly.

That choice needs to be made and Netanyahu should be clear and honest about his plans.  As Abraham Lincoln quipped, you can fool some people all the time and all people some of the time, but you cannot fool not all people all the time.  Netanyahu thought otherwise, and he was proven wrong.

I do not blame Netanyahu for the absence of peace, and I agree with him that Palestinian rejectionism was and continues to be the ultimate obstacle to peace.  But precisely because peace is beyond reach, the choice must be made between annexation (which sacrifices demography for the sake of territory) and separation (which sacrifices territory for the sake of demography).  As for the status quo, it is also an option (though one for which Israel’s allies and US Jewry are losing patience) but it is impossible to sell as a “status quo” a situation in which Israel continues to build outside the settlement blocs.

Even with a more well-disposed Trump administration, Israel can no longer evade the need to make tough choices about its future.  Both Israel’s government and opposition owe us an honest explanation about their endgame before the next elections.

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