Too late, too little, Mr. President

US President Barack Obama, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting in New York, September 21, 2016 . Photo: AFP/Jim Watson

President Obama's heroics at the fading hours of his presidency may have come too late too little, but it was just enough to ruffle both the Israeli Prime Minister and the in-coming US President. The outgoing US President's decision not to veto a UN resolution condemning Israel's construction of illegal settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory will most likely cause no change on the ground. The occupation will continue, as will the expansion of Israeli settlements. What's worse, an unhinged Israeli Prime Minister, encouraged by the in-coming US Administration, could feel emboldened to scrap even the appearance of a commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East.

And yet, the US President's action was not without significance.

The US President-in-waiting, Donald Trump, has announced, things would be different after the 20th January when Obama exits and he enters the White House. He was so incensed at Obama's refusal to heed to his call - "veto the resolution" – that he now thinks the UN is nothing but a club for some occasional chit chat. The Israeli Prime Minister, frothing at the mouth, is literally counting the days when he would finally have a man in the White House he could call a friend.

But, if the future looks so rosy, why is the Prime minister panicking? Mr. Netanyahu seems to be in a fume ever since the resolution was adopted. He has vowed to cut off funding to four UN agencies that support Palestinian refugees. He has also promised to stop all Israeli economic aid to countries that voted for the resolution condemning Israel.

What Mr. Netanyahu hasn't acknowledged is that the resolution was supported by all members but one of the UN Security Council, including four of its permanent members. In retaliation, Netanyahu has announced freezing diplomatic relations with Britain, France, Russia, China, Japan, Ukraine, Angola, Egypt, Uruguay, Spain, Senegal and New Zealand, the countries that had supported the resolution.

His action was not without an irony. In recent months, Mr. Netanyahu has been claiming success for his "go tough" policy with the Palestinians, saying the world was queuing behind him. So many world leaders wanted to visit him that he was having a tough time managing his appointment schedules. If the world is behind him, why did no one side with him in the Security Council, taunted his arch enemy, Labour Party's Isaac Herzog.

Ehud Barak, a former Israeli Prime Minister, was equally merciless in his appraisal of the Prime Minister. "This is the same prime minister who told us dozens of states are on board with us," Mr. Barak told journalists. "I looked for Russia, China, England, France. Where are all the friends that were meant to stand with us?"

Political backlash aside, there are reasons why Netanyahu and his cohorts are panicking. The Security Council resolution condemning the construction of all Israeli settlements on the occupied land as "illegal" renews the legal framework for future negotiations with the Palestinians. At the minimum, it is a signal from the international community that construction of Israeli settlements in occupied territories is a "flagrant violation of international law."

Of course, there are numerous other UN resolutions that impose specific mandates on Israel and their Palestinian counterparts. On the issue of Israeli settlements, Israel has time and again been shielded by the US. Wagging its finger – figuratively and literally – the US has used its right to veto no fewer than 40 times to save Israel from repeated international condemnation of illegal occupation. In casting the "no" vote, the US has cited its preference for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Such talks have been halted a long time ago, allowing illegal construction of Jewish settlements to continue unchecked.

Just look at the numbers.

According to Btselem, the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories (http://www.btselem.org/settlements/statistics), notwithstanding those in East Jerusalem and settlement enclaves within Hebron, currently there are at least 125 government- sanctioned Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In addition, there are another 100 or more settlement outposts throughout the West bank, set up by Jewish settlers without the Israeli government's approval. All told, there are close to half a million settlers in West Bank alone. Another nearly 200,000 settlers live in East Jerusalem. Through these settlements and an intricate arrangement of security checkpoints and separation walls, Israel has already seized control of over 60 percent of Palestinian land earmarked in the original 1947 UN partition plan that proposed the creation of Israel and an independent Palestinian State.

Last week's Security Council resolution is only the latest to have been adopted by the UN critical of Israel. Since the present resolution calls for no sanctions or stipulates no new legal requirements, Israel could – and most likely would – just ignore it as they have done to the 225 or so resolutions adopted by the Security Council and another 200 by the General assembly in the past sixty or so years.

However, there is a difference.

First, after a lapse of nearly a decade, this nearly unanimous resolution puts the question of Palestine back on the table for international conversation. The last measurable action taken on the Middle East Peace Process was in 2010 when, with pressure from President Obama, Israel had agreed to a 10-month partial freeze on construction of settlements in the West Bank. At that time the two sides had also agreed to relaunch their peace talks, which never actually happened. Now, if the pressure on Israel continues, the talks could finally resume.

That's exactly what the UN hopes. The out-going UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has called the adoption of the resolution a "significant step, demonstrating the Council's much-needed leadership and the international community's collective efforts to reconfirm that the vision of two States is still achievable."

The other, perhaps more urgent issue for Israeli is the possibility of the Palestinian Authority seeking the intervention of the International Criminal Court (ICC). As Israel's popular liberal newspaper Haaretz points out, the settlement activities are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. This has now been reconfirmed by the Security Council with a near-unanimous resolution. Thus, the legal path has been cleared for the Palestinian Authority to go to The Hague. In 2012, when the Palestinian Authority sought full membership of the United Nations, Israel fought tooth and nail to stop it out of its fear of such an international intervention. Due to US opposition, Palestine could not become a full member of the UN, but the State Of Palestine was welcomed as a non-member observer by the General Assembly, enabling it to become a member of ICC.

The world has largely forgotten the Palestinians. At least four wars have been fought, nearly three million have been rendered homeless and countless people have died. Now six decades later, there is a certain numbness and considerable "news fatigue" over the conflict.

However, thanks to an overzealous Netanyahu and a Twitter-happy US President-elect, the world will now have to revisit the issues, including the illegal occupation of the Palestinian land. Mr. Trump could only help the case by trying to overturn the resolution, something his supporters have suggested.

As for Mr. Obama, this was perhaps one final act of defiance. In dealing with Israel, throughout his eight years, he has vacillated – between a rock and a hard place. His liberal heart probably wanted to confront Netanyahu, but settled on talking big and taking no action. With an eye on the 2016 US elections, he even made amends with Netanyahu by signing this year in September a 10-year, USD 38 billion arms deal.

With the election lost and his days numbered, the UN resolution gave Obama a final opportunity to exact revenge on his old nemesis. It may have come too late and it is too little for the long-suffering Palestinians. However, it may have earned Obama a little footnote in the chequered history of the protracted Middle East peace process.

The writer is a journalist and author based in New York.


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