February 17, 2011

Why Israel can still rely on U.S. support at the UN

Why am I not worried about a possible vote tomorrow in the UN Security Council on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity?

First of all, I don't happen to think new settlement activity is worth all the trouble (unless the goal is to close off any future peace deal), but I don't see how Washington does better messaging Israel through the Security Council than by hitting speed dial on 1,000 U.S. Government cell phones.

I am not worried about the United States letting the resolution get adopted by withholding its veto as one of the five permanent members of the Council. Despite all the speculation and hyped fueled by progressive foreign policy wonks and further leveraged by conservative critics of most of the Obama administration's global agenda, the USG has displayed no signs that it will let the resolution go through. Quite the contrary.

Without breaching protocol by broadcasting that it will definitely veto the resolution, U.S. officials have said everything but.

It was reported late yesterday that U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice had floated a proposal to the UN's Arab bloc for a toned-down Presidential Statement (issued by the Council Presidency by consensus of all 15 members) reaffirming the Council's opposition to settlements, etc., and condemning rocket attacks from Gaza against Israelis. There were a few minor concessions from the U.S. side, as well. Despite some of the conclusions of the press report, this did not constitute some radical departure from U.S. practice.

The Arabs rejected the U.S. proposal, for the same reason the U.S. offered it. They don't care whether the Council issues anything, be it a full-fledged resolution or a less formal statement. They care about forcing the United States to veto a tactical resolution now so we'll have less credibility later on when a vote on Palestinian statehood comes before the Council. And we care about avoiding any unnecessary vetoes along the way, which is why Ambassador Rice's proffer made sense when I read of it.

If the United States were preparing to let the Council condemn Israel this time, that would be a strategic decision by President Obama to send Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a message and to break with the traditional Jewish political establishment. Most importantly, it would feed the momentum for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood. If the President were leaning that way, he would not have his UN ambassador try to bargain down to a "statement" that hits Palestinian terrorists harder than it does the Israeli settlements. And the week after Hosni Mubarak left the scene, the last thing a post-midterm President needs is to further spook the Israeli political and security establishment.

The Administration has previously used Presidential Statements to avoid the veto spectacle and gain advantage on more important votes. After the 2009 Gaza "flotilla", which resulted in the deaths of nine mostly Turkish activists who tried kidnapping an Israeli boarding party, there was a clamoring for Security Council condemnation. The United States agreed to a Presidential Statement that fell short of "condemnation" (each word choice has distinct implications in the world of international law and diplomacy). It agreed to the statement to avoid havign to veto a resolution, and to move the issue off the Council's agenda before it escalated.

As it happened, the whole flotilla affair hit just before the Security Council was to vote on a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran's nuclear defiance. Agreeing to the Presidential Statement on the flotilla helped the United States get 11 Council members to join it in adopting the Iran sanctions (Brazil and Turkey voted against, and Lebanon abstained). I have yet to find anyone self-described as "pro-Israel" who claims that settlements or the Gaza blockade is more important than stopping Iran's obvious development of nuclear weapons.

I am confident the United States will cast a veto on Friday. I have no insider information at this time to "prove" I'm right, and in fact a prominent blogger has promised some new revelations later today to prove me wrong... We'll find out tomorrow, or whenever a vote takes place. I see no reason to worry about something that would make no sense and over which -- since President Obama himself would be making an individual and very conscious decision -- neither I nor anyone else has any control.

I am also confident that, if the veto is cast, the Obama critics and fear-stokers will again quickly forget that and return to focusing selectively on faulty atmospherics and innuendoes and what-ifs, so that next time around we will again be expected to sit on pins and needles waiting to find out if Barack Obama will this time "throw under the bus" the State of Israel. #gimmeabreak

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