Washington’s Strange United Nations Veto

The United States condemn Israeli settlement activity yet block a resolution condemning it.

President Barack Obama listens to Ambassador Susan Rice during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington DC, December 13, 2010
President Barack Obama listens to Ambassador Susan Rice during a meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington DC, December 13, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

There can be little doubt that the ill-prepared invasion and occupation of Iraq turned many Arabs and Muslims in the region away from the United States. The utter destruction of Iraqi society, allegations of torture from coalition soldiers and the tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis who perished in the fighting had a severe effect on Washington’s leverage in the Middle East, kicking America in a corner until General David Petraeus rescued the war effort.

The American occupation also lent a great deal of support to Al Qaeda and its ilk, all of whom are dependent upon the image of a joint Zionist-Western conspiracy against the world’s Muslims and the religion of Islam.

Yet as potent as Iraq was to America’s soft power decline in the Islamic world, the one issue that has been far more important, at least in the minds of Arabs, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

President Barack Obama was acutely aware of this prior to his inauguration and he spent the first year and a half of his administration pressuring the Israelis to stop building settlements on occupied Palestinian land: something which American presidents have not done adequately since George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Despite Obama’s failure to persuade the Israeli government to completely freeze settlement construction, his effort at least gave Arabs and Palestinians alike the perception that the United States were starting to turn a page in the dispute. Only last year, Arabs across the world began to actually imagine what an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could look like and how a future state of Palestine might operate free of Israeli interference.

But thanks to Washington’s decision to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement building (which the international community has already declared “illegal”) the confidence that Arabs once had about American sincerity is now diminished to perhaps the lowest point since the second intifada.

Not only were the United States the only member on the Security Council to veto the resolution; its rationale for doing so (explained in Ambassador Susan Rice’s accompanying statement) was muddled, questionable and downright contradictory to official American policy.

Successive administrations have labeled the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (and the Gaza Strip prior to 2005) a violation of international humanitarian law. Every American president since the establishment of Israel in 1948 has called for direct negotiations in one form or another (sometimes bilaterally; sometimes trilaterally with the United States taking a leading role). These are the exact positions that were outlined in the latest UN resolution, nothing less and nothing more.

Then what prompted the American delegation to kill the bill? According to Rice, it was the very nature of the resolution itself: “this draft,” she said, “risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations.” Or, to put it far more cynically, the United Nations should stop doing their job and let the conflict fester for another sixty years.

Due to Israel’s unique partnership with the United States, the Obama Administration has every right and incentive to ensure Israel’s security and preserve the commitments that so many American presidents have made to the small state since its founding. But by refusing to acknowledge Israel’s presence in the West Bank for what it is — an occupation bordering on colonization — all Washington is doing is perpetuating Israel’s desire to continue swallowing more Palestinian land.

If Israel is to maintain its democratic and Jewish character, its leaders will eventually have to leave the West Bank. As a friend, the United States have a responsibility to make sure that Israel understands this and takes constructive action toward that scenario. Avoiding a “tough love” approach won’t do America, Israel, the Palestinians nor the Arab world any favors.