This was supposed to be a day that ended with some high drama at the United Nations Security Council. The expectation was that the U.S. would finally abandon Israel at the UN, during President Obama’s last days in office, by failing to veto a measure that would label the presence of all Jews in the West Bank and in parts of Jerusalem lawbreakers. With the handover of power in Washington only 29 days away, we have a few more weeks to find out if that’s what Obama will do, but the answer won’t come today. Reportedly, last minute pressure from Israel on the resolution’s Egyptian sponsors resulted in Cairo postponing the vote, possibly “indefinitely.”
Was this outcome merely the product of the increasingly close relations between Israel and an Egyptian government that sees the Jewish state as an essential ally in its fight against ISIS terrorists in the Sinai as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas? Perhaps. If so, then a biased resolution that places all of the blame for the lack of peace on Israel and only pays lip service to Palestinian terror and incitement to violence (without naming the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as the guilty parties) will soon be revived by another sponsor. But it’s also possible that the real diplomatic struggle here isn’t so much between Israel and Egypt or even the Palestinians as it is between Obama and his successor.
The assumption has been that once the presidential election was over, there would be nothing to restrain Obama from launching a parting shot at his longtime antagonist, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That calculation turned out to be incorrect. While Obama need no longer fear a pro-Israel backlash from the voters or Congress, he does have to reckon with the intentions of his successor. In the last month, there was speculation that Obama would forgo a betrayal of the Jewish state at the UN because he feared doing so would only push Trump further into the arms of the pro-Israel community. In the wake of Trump’s naming as the next ambassador to Israel his friend David Friedman—an ardent backer of Israel as well as a supporter of the settlement movement and of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv—the president may be further tempted to undermine Netanyahu and impede Trump’s plans.
That’s why Trump’s challenge to Obama this morning, in which he blasted the proposed resolution as “deeply unfair” to Israel and demanded that it be vetoed, may have had as much impact on today’s postponement and the chances of reviving the effort as any message Netanyahu may have sent to the Egyptians.
That puts the outgoing and incoming administrations on a collision course.
In this case, Trump is right and Obama is dead wrong. The Palestinians’ attempt to use the power of the UN to attack Israel is a distraction from peace efforts, not a help to them. The only path to peace must come via direct negotiations between the two parties. Trump may be no policy genius but, unlike Obama and many of Israel’s foreign critics, he seems to be aware of the fact that the Palestinians have rejected repeated offers of statehood from Israel including ones that would have given them almost all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem.
While he may still entertain unrealistic hopes of brokering the real-estate deal of the century that would mark peace between the two sides, Trump seems to understand that the obstacle to peace isn’t the building of a few homes in parts of Jerusalem or the West Bank that Israel would retain in any peace deal. It is, rather, the Palestinian refusal to make peace. The resolution’s passage would reward Palestinian intransigence and remove any incentive for them to make the concessions needed for an agreement. Worse than that, it might inject new life into the BDS movement that seeks to isolate and wage economic warfare on Israel.
Trump may not be able to undo a UNSC resolution unilaterally once he takes office. But it will give him added incentive to make gestures that show the world that the United States still has Israel’s back, such as a move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Moreover, as Eugene Kontorovich writes in the Washington Post, he could also order the State Department to reverse its stand on the legality of settlements—a position that would outrage the foreign-policy establishment and put the U.S. at odds with its allies but would also be rooted in justice and history. That would be a powerful statement to the Palestinians that their efforts to isolate Israel have failed and that if they truly want a two-state solution they must come back to the table and forget about the UN.
Whatever else he has accomplished here, Trump has given Obama reason to pause before he goes ahead with an abstention rather than a veto at the UN. Though the president may still long to impose a diktat on Israel about borders and settlements that would undermine its negotiating position and encourage the Palestinians to be even more intransigent, Obama may now understand that such a petulant gesture may only make it more likely that Trump will double down on a shift to a more pro-Israel policy that will essentially erase everything the president has tried to do on the issue in the last eight years.