The news that the Palestinian Authority is expected to try to use the United Nations Security Council to label any Israeli presence in the West Bank and Jerusalem “illegal” is hardly a surprise to those who have followed the PA’s continuous efforts to evade actual peace negotiations. Having rejected an Israeli offer of an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem in 2008, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas spent the first two years of the Obama administration doing everything possible to avoid actually negotiating with Israel. With even Obama starting to understand that the last thing Abbas wants is to sign a peace accord no matter how generous its terms or where Israel’s borders might be drawn, it’s clear the Palestinian’s goal is not a state but to escalate the diplomatic conflict. That will enable him to compete with Hamas for support among a Palestinian population that has never reconciled itself to peace with a Jewish state. The UN is the perfect forum for such a venture since it is a hotbed of anti-Zionist, as well as anti-Semitic, incitement.
Yet despite the mainstream media’s oft trumpeted claim that settlements are illegal under international law, Israel actually has an excellent case here. As David Phillips of the Northeastern School of Law detailed in COMMENTARY in December 2009, whatever one’s opinion of the wisdom of building in the territories, allegations of its illegality are unfounded in international law. Unfortunately, Israel has never made much of an effort to defend itself on this front. The reasons for this are complicated. A lot of it has to do with the general incompetence of Israeli public relations, but it must also be said that the left-wing political beliefs of many Israeli diplomats who were personally opposed to the settlements also played a role. This has led to a situation in which many Israelis and American supporters of the Jewish state simply accept the charge of illegality since they have rarely been exposed to the compelling arguments to the contrary.
But the real question that is hanging over a potential UN fight over settlements is how the United States will behave. The United States has used its veto in the past to prevent the Security Council from unfairly prejudicing potential peace talks with resolutions that demonized Israel. However, President Obama’s foolish decision to pick a fight with the Israelis over settlements and, in particular, about Jerusalem helped torpedo any hope of fruitful negotiations, because Abbas could not appear to be less tough on Israel than the Americans (he had, after all, negotiated directly with the Israelis without the precondition of the settlement freeze that Obama had insisted on). In recent months, the administration tried to entice the Israelis to agree to yet another settlement-building freeze by promising to veto resolutions like the one the Palestinians may propose, but, as we know, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton refused to put that in writing. In the months ahead, we will see whether Israel will be forced to pay a price for an American veto. But even more ominous is the possibility that Barack Obama will reverse decades of pro-Israel advocacy by U.S. representatives to the UN by abandoning Israel in the coming debate.