x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A veto marks Palestinian independence - from the US

The US veto of a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Israeli settlements places Washington on the wrong side of history, writes Tony Karon.

Money, as the old Beatles song recognised, can't buy you love, and it can't even buy you quiescence, as the Obama administration discovered last week.

President Barack Obama spent an hour on the phone on Friday with President Mahmoud Abbas, trying to browbeat the Palestinian leader to withdraw a UN Security Council resolution demanding a halt to Israeli settlement activity. Mr Abbas was warned, aides said, that there would be "consequences" for defying Washington's request, which many observers read as a threat to reconsider US financial support for the Palestinian Authority. Mr Abbas had cited such "unbearable pressure" as the reason he agreed against his own judgement to join Mr Obama's talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But this time, no amount of US pressure changed Mr Abbas's mind.

Washington had hoped to avoid the embarrassment of wielding its veto power on a UN Security Council resolution that essentially echoed its own demands. The administration gamely insisted its veto was not a defence of settlements; rather, the resolution would impede negotiations for a two-state solution.

But that argument was so bereft of credibility that it failed to move even the closest US allies on the council. There are no negotiations right now, nor are there likely to be as long as the Israeli government defies international consensus on terms for a two-state solution. Mr Obama's failure to coax the Israelis into a settlement freeze with a huge package of incentives undermines the claim that his negotiation process can end the expansion of settlements.

Mr Abbas has banked his political career on a diplomatic solution in Washington, and would not have gone to the Security Council if he had any reason to believe that doing so would threaten prospects for a credible solution to the conflict. The 14-1 vote makes clear that not one other council member accepted the US argument. The vote was as much a repudiation of Washington's handling of the peace process as it was a condemnation of Israeli settlements.

Indeed, the council is well aware that it was US domestic politics, not the logic of any peace process, that prompted Mr Obama's veto. He is obviously reluctant to alienate deep-pocketed pro-Israel donors ahead of his own tough re-election fight, and he was also under strong bipartisan pressure from Capitol Hill.

Last week's vote was a statement by the Palestinians and the rest of the international community that the Israeli-Palestinian file can no longer be Washington's exclusive preserve, precisely because that holds it hostage to the vagaries of US domestic politics.

It was the anxiety of a pro-Israel establishment that in fact prompted Mr Obama to appoint the longtime Clinton envoy Dennis Ross as Middle East adviser. Mr Obama seems to have reverted to the envoy's basic operating principle - that the US must coordinate its own positions with Israelis to ensure that Washington is never asking Israel to take steps its government is uncomfortable taking. That approach, shared by the Bush administration, allows the Israelis to claim a de facto veto over US policy. The former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, boasted in 2009 that he'd prevailed on Mr Bush to order a US abstention on a Security Council resolution on Gaza that his own secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, had helped draft.

And last week, the Israeli press reported that Mr Netanyahu's office was closely consulted in the prelude to the latest veto: a last-ditch US "compromise" offer - in which the Security Council would issue a statement rather than resolution over settlements - was approved by Israeli officials.

But the Palestinian leadership, at least on Friday, wasn't interested in bowing to US efforts to accommodate Israel. There's not much more that the Obama administration can offer the Palestinians right now except money. After two decades of bitter disappointment, few still believe that Washington intends to deliver a credible solution to the conflict - not when the Israeli electorate has moved so far to the right, and not while domestic calculations prevent Washington from putting the squeeze on them.

Mr Obama, with his fine rhetoric promising justice for the Palestinians, was viewed by many as their last best hope; he has proven to be a bitter disappointment.

The missing element in Washington's efforts to press Mr Abbas to back down was Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader on whom the Obama administration had relied upon to twist Mr Abbas's arm and provide political cover when it needed him to act against his better judgement. Mr Abbas's participation in the Obama peace process was mandated not by his own organisation, but by Mr Mubarak and the Arab League.

But Mr Mubarak has gone, and the reasons for his ouster ought to have been a lesson to Washington: his US-funded regime could offer its people neither dignity, justice nor a national narrative they could embrace; it was an empty shell amid the democratic wave sweeping the Arab world. Mr Mubarak's fate was a warning to Arab leaders more attentive to Washington's demands than to their own people. Many in Mr Abbas's Fatah movement have long agitated for a break with US tutelage. They plan to hold their own "Day of Rage" - the rubric common to democracy protests across the region - and the target of their rage is Washington, and its veto.

The Arab rebellion appears to have finally called time on the illusion that endless conversations with US officials and Israeli leaders is going to end the occupation. Whether or not Mr Abbas shares that view, the spirit of Tahrir Square will likely see growing numbers of Palestinians taking to the streets to demand their freedom from Israeli occupation, which most of the world supports, regardless of whether that suits the US. Indeed, the February 18 vote at the United Nations may just herald a Palestinian declaration of independence - from Washington.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron