Even though the US, in the end, did the right thing, it also further damaged Israel’s confidence in Obama’s reliability as a friend and ally.
The veto also infuriated Abbas and the Arabs, because they thought that they could use it to drive a wedge between the US and Israel, and finally isolate Israel diplomatically.
The vetoed resolution said that all Israeli settlements established since 1967 “are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to the achievement of a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.” It also demanded that Israel “cease all settlement activities.”
The US was the only member of the 15-member council to vote against the resolution, which enjoyed the support of all the European countries and the EU. It was the first time that the US had cast its veto in the Security Council since 2006, when it vetoed a resolution which condemned Israel for its invasion of Gaza. The US then said that it considered that resolution to be one-sided because it did not call for an end to the rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza, which was under the control of Hamas.
The Palestinians and their Arab allies had been carefully building support for the resolution for months, after the US gave up on its efforts to negotiate an extension of the West Bank construction freeze which expired in September.
THE US TRIES TO EXPLAIN ITS VETO
Immediately after casting the veto, Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, explained that although the US strongly opposes Israel’s settlement policy, the adoption of the resolution by the Security Council risked hardening positions and encouraging both sides to stay out of negotiations.
Rice emphasized that the Obama administration’s veto should “not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity.”
“We reject in the strongest term the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activities,” Rice said. “For more than four decades Israel’s settlement activities have undermined Israel’s security and eroded hopes of peace and security in the region.”
But she added, “Unfortunately, this draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides and could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations.”
It was a valiant effort on Rice’s part, but the explanation satisfied nobody.
US EFFORT TO SIDETRACK THE RESOLUTION FAILED
Up until the actual Security Council vote, it was not clear whether the resolution would be withdrawn. The Palestinians rejected repeated requests by the United States earlier Friday not to introduce the resolution for a Security Council vote. The US had warned Abbas that introduction of the measure would be harmful to any remaining chances to revive direct peace Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The US was urging the Palestinians to accept a consensus “presidential statement” on behalf of the entire Security Council rebuking Israel for constructing new settlements on Arab land, rather than insisting on the passage of a formal resolution which would brand the Israeli actions as illegal in the eyes of international law. The presidential statement would have said that Israel’s ongoing settlement activities lacked legitimacy.
The US also said that if the Palestinians withdrew the resolution, the White House would issue a future statement bearing strong language asserting that peace talks need to proceed on the basis of the pre-1967 borders for establishing a Palestinian state. In a 50-minute phone conversation with Abbas the night before the vote took place, Obama personally pleaded with him to withdraw the resolution, and accept the generous US offers in its place. But Abbas rejected Obama’s offers as inadequate, and went ahead with submitting the resolution for a formal vote, which failed because of the US veto.
Reports in the Arab media claim that the administration had also warned Abbas that introducing the resolution could endanger support in Congress for the continuation of about $200 million in annual US aid to the Palestinian Authority, and harm US-PA relations.
However, leading up to the vote on the resolution Friday, there was a debate in the US media over whether the US should exercise its veto to kill the resolution, especially if no other Security Council member voted against it.
In particular, the secular liberal Jewish lobbying group J Street issued a statement urging the US not to be the lone vote cast against the resolution.
The US always said that it was opposed to the Palestinians bringing the issue to the Security Council. However, there was also some apparently deliberate ambiguity in advance statements coming out of the administration, as to whether the US was prepared to go it alone and cast its veto to block the resolution if it were introduced.
The ambiguous administration statements, and the J Street message, indicating a split in American Jewish support on this issue, raised serious concerns in Israel as to whether the US would actually cast its veto under those circumstances.
As a result, news of the veto was greeted by Israel with great relief. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said that “Israel deeply appreciates the decision by President Obama to veto the Security Council Resolution, and regrets that the other Security Council members have refrained from making the same contribution.”
He added that Israel is “prepared to pursue negotiations vigorously” and was “eager to get on” with direct peace talks. The “decision by the US makes it clear that the only path to such a peace will come through direct negotiations and not through the decisions of international bodies.”
RAISING FALSE ARAB EXPECTATIONS
The doubt about US intentions raised expectations on the Palestinian side that the US would not, in the end, cast its veto, even though, as the date for the resolution’s introduction neared, the White House became more forceful in its warning to the Palestinians to back off. In the end, both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas personally to urge him to withdraw the resolution. Fatah elements claimed that Clinton had actually threatened to halt financial aid should the Palestinian Authority not withdraw its draft from the Security Council’s agenda
However, Abbas ignored the warnings and went forward with introducing the Palestinian draft resolution. He could have had several reasons for doing this.
He may not have believed that the US would use its veto to kill it. Apparently, until the veto was actually cast, the Israeli government shared this doubt, at least to some extent.
Abbas was also badly in need of some kind of victory to rebuild his reputation with his fellow Arabs, which was badly damaged by the al Jazeera revelation of the concessions he discussed with Ehud Olmert.
One might even suspect that the violent Palestinian Authority reaction to the US veto was at least partially meant to serve as a distraction to take some of the heat off them from their Arab critics.
PA officials also suggested privately to reporters that withdrawing the resolution might have triggered Egyptian-style anti-government demonstrations in the West Bank aimed at them.
US BECOMES THE TARGET
If the PA did push the Security Council resolution in order to deflect some of the criticism it had been receiving toward the United States, the tactic apparently worked. The US veto prompted protest demonstrations across the West Bank, as well as statements of renewed Palestinian public support for Abbas for standing up to the US pressure to withdraw the resolution.
Demonstrators in Ramallah said that the US veto confirmed their view that the US was not a fair mediator in the Palestinian conflict with Israel. At a rally Sunday in Ramallah’s Manara Square, a local Fatah leader said, “Our message to America, which says it supports freedom in the Arab world, is: Where are the freedoms of the Palestinian people?” The protesters then chanted: “Listen, Obama, listen, we’re a people that won’t kneel down! Obama out! Settlers out! Occupation out!”
At the same protest, demonstrators praised Abbas for resisting US pressure and carried his picture.
ABBAS DAMAGES HIS CREDIBILITY
While it is not clear that Abbas hurt his standing with the White House by forcing it to cast the veto, his actions did damage his credibility, and that of the Palestinian Authority, as a legitimate partner for peace with Israel, in the eyes of at least one important US opinion-maker, the editorial page of the Washington Post.
An editorial stated that for the past two years, Abbas “has enjoyed the support of a US president more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than most, if not all, of his predecessors. Yet Abbas has mostly refused to participate in the direct peace talks that Barack Obama made one of his top foreign policy priorities – and now he has shown himself to be bent on embarrassing and antagonizing the US administration.”
The editorial noted that Obama administration does support the substance of the “resolution that called on Israel to cease settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem. . . and has counterproductively pressed it at the expense of its larger diplomatic aims.” Yet Abbas knowingly put the US in a position in which it had to veto the resolution, in order to protect, “its hope of preserving the chance of peace negotiations.”
The editorial says that in the end, the net result of Abbas’ action “will be to embarrass the Obama administration at a delicate moment. . . It will have no impact on Israeli settlement construction, and it will deal a further blow to the prospects for peace talks. It will bolster the right-wing Israeli government.”
The editorial condemns Abbas for making this choice, and rejecting the alternative offered by Obama. It finds his decision to be so “spectacularly self-defeating” as to raise a serious question as to whether Abbas “is genuinely interested in a peace deal. In fact, the UN gambit allows him to posture as a champion of the Palestinian cause without having to consider any of the hard choices that would be needed to found a Palestinian state.”
It also suggests that the true goal of submitting a resolution that was sure to be vetoed was to allow Abbas, “to head off a popular Palestinian rebellion against his own autocratic behavior.”
The incident has clearly caused the Washington Post editorial writers to lose whatever confidence they had left in Abbas. In closing, they note sarcastically, “the Obama administration has all along insisted that Abbas is willing and able to make peace with Israel – despite considerable evidence to the contrary. If the UN resolution veto has one good effect, perhaps it will be to prompt a re-evaluation of a leader who has repeatedly proved both weak and intransigent.”
EREKAT DEALS WITH HIS OWN CREDIBILITY PROBLEMS
Abbas is not the only one in the PA leadership who is battling credibility problems. Saeb Erekat, the longtime chief Palestinian negotiator offered his resignation to Abbas over the weekend after the leak of 1,600 documents with embarrassing details about the peace negotiations held three years ago was traced to the laptop of an employee in Erekat’s office.
The resignation would be as the head PA negotiator, a position he has held since 2003. He intends to stay on as a member of the Fatah central committee, and the executive committee of the PLO.
The leaked documents, which were dubbed the Palestinian Papers, were released by al Jazeera last month. They revealed, among other things, that he and other Palestinian negotiators offered to let Israel annex all but one of the Jewish neighborhoods in East Yerushalayim and discussed limited quotas for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. The revelations prompted angry accusations from across the Arab world that PA leaders had betrayed their own cause and people.
Al Jazeera commentators accused Erekat of selling out to Israel. Since then he has been battling to preserve his reputation. In an interview last week, he said that had decided to step down as the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Negotiations Affairs Department, in order to set an example of personal accountability.
He explained that, “when the most complicated, deep breach that ever happened in Palestinian national security history happened in my office,” he could not go on conducting business as usual. “I’m making myself pay the price for the mistake I committed, my negligence.”
However, Abbas has yet to say whether he will accept the resignation.
Erekat claims that the leaked material was presented selectively and out of context but has not challenged its accuracy. He has argued that the concessions offered should not have come as a surprise because he had consistently outlined similar negotiating positions in speeches, personal appearances and articles over the years. These include establishing a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders, with “minor and agreed land swaps” covering the larger West Bank settlements, and a “just and agreed” solution to the refugee issue.