The Obama Administration cast its first veto in the United Nations on Friday, February 18, killing a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Israeli settlement activity. Its poor handling of the entire episode has left just about everyone angry at the United States, and is therefore a manifest failure of American diplomacy.
The Palestinian Authority began to talk about this resolution months ago. The United States could then have adopted a clear position: put it forward and it will be vetoed. That very clear stand might have persuaded the Palestinian leaders and their Arab supporters to drop the effort early on, when it could have been abandoned with no loss of face. Instead the Administration refused to make its position clear until the final day. In its Friday edition the New York Times was reporting that “the Obama administration was trying Thursday evening to head off an imminent vote in the United Nations Security Council that would declare Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank illegal, but would not declare publicly whether it was prepared to veto the resolution.” It seems clear that the administration was desperate to avoid a veto, indeed desperate to go four years without spoiling its “perfect record.” But a “perfect record” in the UN requires vetoes, given the persistent anti-Israel bias of the organization. The administration’s desire to avoid vetoes only served to reduce its bargaining power, for the credible threat of a veto has long served American diplomats seeking to achieve an outcome more favorable to our interests.
On the last day before the vote, the president called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli press reported that “In a 50-minute phone call, he asked Abbas to drop the resolution and settle for a non-binding statement condemning settlement expansion, Palestinian officials said. Abbas on Friday received a follow-up call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the issue, the Palestinian news agency Wafa said.” But apparently the president did more than ask: “One senior Palestinian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the offer, made in an hour-long phone call from Obama, was accompanied by veiled threats of ’repercussions’ if it were refused.
’Obama threatened on Thursday night to take measures against the Palestinian Authority if it insists on going to the Security Council to condemn Israeli settlement activity, and demand that it be stopped,’ the official said. ’There will be repercussions for Palestinian-American relations if you continue your attempts to go to the Security Council and ignore our requests in this matter, especially as we suggested other alternatives,’ the official quoted Obama as telling Abbas.”
Abbas rejected the Clinton and Obama appeals and/or ignored their threats, in itself a sign of reduced American diplomatic influence. The American veto will have angered Palestinians even more. But it will not have gained the administration any thanks from Israel or from supporters of Israel in the United States, who were appalled by the administration’s search for a bad compromise. According to the New York Times, the administration proposed that instead of a resolution the Security Council issue a “presidential statement” that "would condemn settlements but also call on all sides to resume negotiations. That statement would be paired with a Russian proposal for a fact-finding mission on settlements, and a proposed change in how the quartet, the international group that deals with the Middle East peace process, defines the basic building blocks of negotiations ranging from borders to the political status of Jerusalem.”
So the administration was content with condemning settlements, happy to establish a new UN fact-finding mission, and willing to redefine the role of the Quartet. All that just to avoid a veto of the sort American presidents have been ordering for decades.
Feeling guilty about its veto the administration then issued an extraordinary “explanation of vote,” read by UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Though we had to veto, she explained, “we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace….While we agree with our fellow Council members—and indeed, with the wider world—about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. We therefore regrettably have opposed this draft resolution.”
This is amazing language for a diplomat: “folly,” “illegitimacy,” “devastates,” “corroded,” and so on. It’s hard to recall such a vehement statement against Israel, nor one that contains so many conclusions that are, to say the least, highly debatable. Has construction in and around Jerusalem or in Ma’ale Adumim, for example, “undermined Israel’s security?” Given that the Israelis and Palestinians concluded the Oslo Accords and the numerous other agreements while construction activity was far greater than it is today, what is the basis for saying that it “devastates trust?” No doubt the administration decided that as it had vetoed it would “make it up” to the Arabs with this statement. But emotive language such as Amb. Rice employed serves no purpose. Arab newspapers will headline the veto—assuming of course that they have space in their pages tomorrow after covering the revolts in Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, Bahrain, and Egypt—and are very unlikely to cover her speech. Only Israelis and supporters of Israel in the United States will study her language, and remember it.
So, the administration emerges having damaged relations with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. Decades of American experience at the United Nations proves clearly the “folly” of such diplomatic action, which “devastates trust” in the United States and therefore “corrodes hopes for peace and stability in the region.” Next time, say you’ll veto, veto, and leave it at that. The United States will end up with fewer angry friends and fewer gleeful enemies.