Alone in the crowd

Print edition : March 25, 2011

ABED OMAR QUSINI/REUTERS

The U.S. vetoes a Palestinian resolution in the Security Council when all other member-states vote for it.

THE Barack Obama administration's duplicitous policy on Palestine was on full display even as the Arab street was rising in revolt. In the third week of February, the United States once again vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. This time the U.S. was the only country that exercised the veto. Its close allies, Britain, France and Germany, along with other countries in the 15-member Security Council, voted in favour of the resolution, which was sponsored by 122 nations. The international community's unified voice was stifled by a single veto.

Palestinians are outraged by this action of the Obama government, which is still trying to pretend to be an honest broker in the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). It is the first time the Obama administration has used its veto in the Security Council to protect Israel from being censured for expanding its occupation of Palestinian territories.

The peace talks the Obama administration has been trying to revive were derailed in September over the issue of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The P.A. insists that it will not resume negotiations unless the settlement-building comes to an end.

Anti-U.S. rallies took place in the West Bank and Gaza following the U.S. veto. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the U.S. veto would lead to more damage of the United States' credibility on the Arab side as a mediator in peace efforts. The Hamas government in Gaza described the U.S. act as outrageous and said it had proved once again that Washington was completely biased towards Israel.

Mahmud al-Atul, a central committee member of the ruling Fatah in the West Bank, told a crowd of protesters that the U.S. veto was against the Palestinian people and their freedom, and it supports Israeli injustice, oppression and occupation. With all the major powers except the U.S. coming out in support of the Palestinian position, the P.A. has pledged to put forward another resolution in the Security Council condemning the illegal Israeli settlements. The Obama administration may have to once again veto international public opinion.

Lopsided negotiations'

Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, says Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team, have never been based on the principles of international law but on third parties pressuring Palestine to repeatedly make concessions. These lopsided negotiations, according to her, have been further undercut by the U.S.' propensity to use its veto whenever a solution to the Palestinian problem seemed near. Since the founding of the U.N., 70 per cent of U.S. vetoes in the Security Council have been on behalf of Israel.

The Obama administration's record is not going to be any different if the voting pattern of the last two years is any indication. In December 2009, the U.N. General Assembly passed 18 resolutions on The Question of Palestine. These resolutions reaffirmed the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people over their land and their right to self determination, and also reaffirmed that Israel's settlements on Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, were illegal and were an obstacle to peace and economic and social development. The Obama administration voted against 16 of the resolutions and abstained in the case of two.

The resolutions were approved by an overwhelming majority of the member-states. In 2010, too, the General Assembly passed similar resolutions and the U.S. voted against them. There has been no change in the stance of the Obama administration despite the increasing evidence that Israel is going ahead with its plans to annexe East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to express his gratitude to Washington after the latest veto, but Israeli politicians from the opposition had a more realistic appraisal of the situation. The perceptive Israeli commentator Gideon Levy described the U.S. veto as not friendly to Israel. It supports the settlers and the Israeli Right, and them alone, he wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Israel, he went on to add, was a country which had lost touch with reality. He said the U.S. was extremely unwise to exercise its veto at a time when the Arab masses were rising against their regimes and against the U.S. and Israel.

The leader of the Opposition, Tzipi Livni, said the voting pattern in the Security Council showed that Israel's position on the international stage was in political collapse. She pointed out that close allies of Israel such as Britain, Germany and France had voted against the Israeli position. The U.S. is being pushed into a corner and finds itself with Israel against the world, she observed.

Palestinians demonstrate againstthe U.S. for vetoing the Security Council resolution against Jewish settlements, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on February 20.-MAJDI MOHAMMED/AP

Many Israeli commentators have suggested that the U.S. will find it difficult to bail Israel out under similar circumstances again and have warned that the Obama administration will also be demanding significant concessions on the settlement issue from a recalcitrant Netanyahu. Israel has never been as isolated as it is today in the region. Relations with Turkey, until recently counted as a strategic ally, have become cold if not downright hostile. Israeli leaders will no longer be frequent visitors to Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt after the departure of their friend Hosni Mubarak.

The resolution, which was put to vote, was carefully worded and reflected the U.S.' views on the illegal Israeli settlements. After casting the veto, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., told Security Council members that Washington agreed with fellow Council members, and indeed with the wider world, about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity. At the same time, she asserted that the resolution risked hardening the positions of both sides and would encourage the parties from refraining from negotiations.

The international community is aware that the stumbling block to the negotiations is the ongoing construction of settlements by the Israeli side. The official position of the Obama administration is that its veto should not be interpreted as support for Israeli settlements and that it believes that the U.N. is not the suitable forum for resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute.

The Obama administration, caught in a politically embarrassing situation, tried desperately to influence the Palestinian side to defer the resolution. Obama spoke to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas for almost an hour in an attempt to persuade him to withdraw the resolution. According to reports, Obama promised to issue a statement supporting the Palestinian viewpoint on the settlements if the Palestinian side withdrew the Security Council resolution. Late last year, the Obama administration promised an additional $3.5 billion as aid to Israel in a bid to persuade Netanyahu to implement a 90-day freeze on the settlement activity.

Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Secretary of State, made a separate phone call to Abbas in a last-ditch effort to convince him to abandon the resolution. It has been reported that the P.A. was threatened with dire consequences, including the curtailment of aid, if the resolution was not withdrawn. The Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, accused Washington of resorting to blackmail. We didn't and will not accept blackmail and neither will our people. We are not interested in aid from any party that threatens to cut it off for political reasons, said Fayyad.

With the Palestinians on the West Bank already angry with the P.A. on a variety of issues, acceding to Washington's request would have been political suicide for Abbas. The leak of the Palestine Papers and the P.A.'s capitulation on the Goldstone Report on Gaza are fresh in the minds of the Palestinian public.

After the popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, the P.A. leadership finds itself in a politically dangerous situation. Following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the P.A. was quick to announce a timetable for fresh elections. Mubarak was a major patron of the P.A.

Hamas has refused to participate in the elections, claiming that fair and free polls are not possible in the West Bank, which is under Israeli military occupation. Parliament members elected from the West Bank on the Hamas ticket in the 2006 elections have all been incarcerated in Israeli prisons. What is the point of holding new elections as long as it is forbidden to say No' to the Israeli occupation and to security coordination with Israel? We know and Abbas knows that these elections are conditional on accepting the humiliating dictates of Israel, wrote a Left-leaning Palestinian commentator, Zakaria Mohammed.

Hanin Zoubi, an Arab-Palestinian member of the Israeli Parliament, said the recent revolutions in the Arab world had given hope to the Palestinian people. Israel has been relying on the weakness of the Arab people, but now this has changed, he said.

European leaders believe that persuading Israel to stop its settlement activities, at least temporarily, will give Abbas and the P.A. a boost in the elections later in the year. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, said in mid-February that time is a factor, and urgent progress in the Palestinian-Israeli settlement is necessary.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Foreign Secretary William Hague and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton talked about the importance of reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks urgently in the wake of the historic events in Tunisia and Egypt. Israeli President Shimon Peres advised his Prime Minister to take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the regional agenda as soon as possible. The Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, explicitly stated that the lack of a solution in the Israel-Palestinian conflict continues to undermine the stability of the region.

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