UN Resolution 2334: Good, Bad or Indifferent?

The adoption by the UN Security Council on December 23, 2016, of Resolution 2334 addressing the situation in Israel and Palestine was, as a symbolic gesture, a game-changing and groundbreaking event. The resolution passed by a vote of 14-0, with the United States abstaining. The U.S. abstention was a break with decades of U.S. policy, which had maintained unwavering defense of Israel against any UN action criticizing Israel, even in the mildest of terms. This break with past actions resulted in cries of outrage from Israeli government officials. While, as I explain below, the major impact was symbolic, there were a number of significant changes in the UN position on the occupied territories as articulated in previous UN actions such the 1967 Resolution 242.

Resolution 242 called for Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and for a just settlement of the refugee problem. It also confirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Resolution 2334 went much further by affirming Israel as an occupying power that must abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which prohibits movement of population into occupied territories. It condemned measures altering the demographic composition, character and status of the Palestinian territories including East Jerusalem. It affirmed that the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem have no legal validity and constitute a flagrant violation of international law. It also demanded that Israel immediately cease all settlement-building.

The symbolism of this action is also important. The 14-0 vote with one abstention clearly demonstrated how isolated Israel has become in the international community. Substantively, it also tacitly changed U.S. policy from calling settlements “unhelpful” to calling them “illegal,” and from ignoring the issue of East Jerusalem to recognizing East Jerusalem as Palestinian territory. However, from a practical point of view, it will likely have little effect on the situation on the ground.

From the perspective of the Obama administration, this action is too little, too late. Over the past eight years, Obama had numerous opportunities to take this step and, for domestic political reasons, declined. At times he vetoed resolutions that merely affirmed stated U.S. policy. At this late stage, there is no opportunity to follow up with concrete actions. While it is difficult to discern Donald Trump’s positions from his conflicting statements on the campaign trail, his appointments of senior officials indicate that the Trump administration will be more pro-Israel than the Obama administration, and will be unlikely to follow through on the resolution. In fact, his announced intention to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, while a largely symbolic move, if implemented, will likely inflame feelings in the Arab population and increasingly poison the environment.

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If the objective of this resolution was to reinvigorate the “peace process” and bring the parties to the negotiating table on a “two state solution,” this is a road to nowhere. Both sides claim that they do not have a negotiating partner and they are right. The corrupt, unelected, illegitimate Palestinian Authority has no ability to speak for the Palestinian people. The far right Israeli government has no interest in allowing a Palestinian state. Even cursory examination of the map of Palestine, as it currently exists, makes it clear that the creation of a viable Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital would require the relocation of over 500,000 Jewish settlers, many of whom are the most radical religious Jews who believe that God gave them the land. Relocating 8,000 settlers from Gaza almost caused an Israeli civil war. The “two state solution” is a non-starter.

Trying to create two states in these circumstances would bring about the same dynamic that existed at the founding of Israel in 1948. As Jews began to ethnically cleanse the state of Israel of its Arab population, the resulting atrocities inflamed the Arab populations of surrounding states. These states were forced by public pressure to intervene militarily, resulting in the first Arab-Israeli War. Another war would not have a happy ending.

Israel will probably ignore this this resolution, as it has ignored all previous efforts at achieving a settlement. Doing so would be a violation of international law, but, in reality, international law is made and enforced by those with the biggest guns, and Israel and the United States have the biggest guns. If this effort brings about a realization that Israel is faced with a choice of being a democracy for its entire population or being an apartheid state, and that the status quo is untenable in the long run, perhaps everyone can move towards a more realistic assessment of the possibilities.

Israel and Palestine: Is There a Way Forward?

Originally published for American Herald Tribune

One thing I learned during my military and business careers was that the first step in solving any problem is to recognize the reality. Wishful thinking is not conducive to solving a problem and has, unfortunately, been the basis for U.S. policies related to the situation in Israel and Palestine for far too long. If any progress is to be made toward solving this intractable problem, a large dose of reality is essential.

So, what is the reality?

  1. Approximately 600,000 Israeli Jews live in the occupied territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
  2. Over one million Palestinian Arabs (Muslim and Christian) live within the borders of Israel defined by the so-called “1967 borders” or “green line.”
  3. With the influx of immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, immigrants with little experience with democracy, the Israeli electorate has become more right wing and this phenomenon is reflected in the Israeli government and its policies. The present Israeli government has shown little or no interest in creating a viable Palestinian state.
  4. The religious parties who believe that God gave them the land of Israel from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea are crucial to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition and thus have power beyond their small numbers.
  5. The Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) is illegitimate (elections have not been held for 10 years.) and corrupt. It has no credibility with the Palestinian people. However, Israel depends on the PA to maintain security control in the West Bank.
  6. Hamas and Fatah cannot agree on a unity government and a common negotiating position.
  7. Jews and Palestinians each have a national narrative and identity and want their own state. Neither group wants to see a bi-national state as the solution.
US Middle East Policy Israel Palestine

Credit: Brian Holsclaw/ flickr

Despite the policy statements by the U.S. and its western allies calling for a two-state solution, it is evident that a so-called two-state solution is no longer a viable option and hasn’t been for almost two decades. One might be tempted, given the seemingly intractable nature of the situation, to give up and walk away from the problem. Unfortunately, this also is not a viable option. The current stalemate is a major contributing factor to the instability in the Middle East and, therefore, the U.S. has a national interest, beyond the humanitarian concerns, in a peaceful resolution. The status quo is not tenable. Many policy makers have declared the “two-state solution” to be on life support. This is true. The problem is that the patient is brain dead. We need to pull the plug, hold a funeral, go through the mourning process and get on with life. So what does that look like?

Several years ago, when I attended a conference in Jerusalem that included Israelis, Palestinians, as well as internationals, one Israeli panelist commented, “The trouble with you Americans is that you think that every problem has a solution.” If thinking that “every problem has a solution” is a crime, then I plead guilty. The attitude that we are capable of solving our problems is one of the things that makes America great. Despite the obstacles, we can help solve this problem as well. Recognizing that the “two-state solution” is no longer possible, a number of thoughtful analysts on both sides have proposed creative ways to address the issues. Examples are here and here. While I agree with the position that we cannot want a solution more than the parties themselves, we can take steps to make a just and peaceful solution more likely.

By unconditionally funding and supporting both sides of the conflict, the U.S. facilitates risky and unhelpful behavior. Making financial and political support conditional would go a long way toward forcing the parties to face reality and take positive steps toward a solution. Given the political realities in the U.S., making aid to Israel conditional is probably impossible, however, withdrawing aid to the Palestinian Authority would have much the same effect. The PA would collapse and all responsibility for governance and security on the West Bank would fall to the Israeli government, with significant financial consequences. In the short run, an increase in violence is likely, but maybe that’s what it will take to focus everybody’s mind on finding a solution. The alternative is a continuation of violence and death for both Israelis and Palestinians.

The Third Intifada – Six Things that You Should Know

Originally published on Foreign Policy Journal

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The Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount (Godot13/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I participated in a conference call on the growing violence in Israel/Palestine. The call included Palestinians and Jews who were either on the ground or had been recently. The picture they painted about the deteriorating situation was very grim. Although, at some level, I knew much of what was discussed, several things stood out for me.

  1. What you read in the western mainstream media is wrong. Whether you read the New York Times, the Washington Post or any other mainstream media outlet, the underlying approach to the coverage is that the violence is being perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists and Israel is responding to these terrorist attacks. The reality is that the violence did not begin in the past few weeks. For years there has been a series of attacks by radical settlers in the West Bank on Palestinians, their homes, farms and businesses. These attackers have, in many cases been protected by the Israeli occupying forces. Over time the racist attacks have spread to Israel proper.
  2. It is not about access to al-Aqsa mosque. Although many of the recent confrontations have taken place at the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) as radical Jews have attempted to gain access to al-Aqsa and the Israeli government has responded by limiting access by Muslims to one of the holiest sites in Islam. While not the cause of the escalating violence, it was a trigger that motivated young Palestinians to take action.
  3. It’s the occupation. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since the end of the 1967 War and over time has annexed portions of this territory and built Jews-only settlements throughout. Despite an array of attempts to resolve the conflict and establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the occupation remains in place. We now have a generation of young people that – having grown up knowing nothing but the occupation, having seen the optimism of the Oslo Accords fade away under the pressure of expanding settlement, having no hope for anything but a brutal military occupation – has become frustrated, angry and radicalized.
  4. The 2014 Gaza War united Palestinians. As I wrote at the time, prior to this war Palestinian citizens and residents of Israel, even though they were second class citizens, tended to think of themselves as Israelis first and Palestinians second. Many knew little about conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. The death and destruction inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza during this war changed this mind set dramatically. They now relate intensely to the plight of their Palestinian brothers and sisters living under occupation. They are also more cognizant of their second class status in Israel. After the Second Intifada, Israel responded by building a wall between the West Bank and Israel. That strategy won’t work this time.
  5. Fear is rampant in all segments of Israeli society. The seemingly random nature of the violence has made the entirety of Israeli society fearful. Jews fear that the Arab construction worker, waiter or student could suddenly turn on them with a knife or vehicle. With the introduction of authorization for police and military within Israel to “shoot to kill” if they “suspect” that someone is a terrorist, Arabs see every policeman as a potential killer. One young Arab woman told a story of walking in East Jerusalem with a water bottle and then throwing it away, afraid that a policeman might think it was a weapon and kill her. Mizrahi Jews, Jews of Middle Eastern origin whose looks, culture and language are Arab, are afraid that they will be attacked by other Jews. The usually vibrant Old City of Jerusalem, filled with shoppers, students and tourists, is quiet.
  6. The Israeli government’s response to the violence has only made matters worse. The decision to combat the intifada by instituting even more violent and repressive measures and the inflammatory language used to justify the measures is counterproductive. The arrests and killing of Palestinian youth and children is increasing the anger and spreading the violence.
  7. Israel has a problem that they have no idea how to solve. Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini may have been prescient when he said, “The occupying regime in Jerusalem will vanish from the pages of time.”

Will the Iran Nuclear Deal Change the Geopolitics of the Middle East?

First published by Foreign Policy Journal

As the September 17 deadline for Congress to act on the Iran Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) approaches, the media has been flooded with editorials, op-ed pieces and blogs making the case for or against the agreement. Those in favor of the agreement have made the case that, while an imperfect agreement, the deal was the best that could be achieved and, through intrusive inspections, will ensure that Iran’s nuclear program will remain peaceful and will not achieve a nuclear weapon. Those opposed have made arguments such as “It’s Iran, we can’t deal with them, we just like sanctions”, “Iran shouldn’t have any nuclear capability”, “Iran is Israel’s enemy”, and “the agreement only lasts 15 years”. Both sides of the debate seem to agree that this agreement will drastically change the geopolitics of the Middle East. But is this really true?

The underlying assumption of those critical of a change in the geopolitical alignment is that the current alignment has been successful in maintaining peace and stability and promoting economic growth, a dubious proposition at best. Those in favor of a geopolitical realignment see a new world in which Iran becomes an important player in bringing stability and order out of the current chaos. While this new world would certainly be an improvement over the current situation, there are a number of reasons to be skeptical of the chances for realignment.

First, and probably most important, is that one of the founding principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran was resistance to U.S. domination of the region. The U.S. and Iran are fundamentally at odds over the geopolitics of the Middle East. While the administration of President Hassan Rouhani is more open to engagement with the west, any thought that Iran will give up its independent foreign policy and follow the American lead is unrealistic. Iran and the U.S. may cooperate on issues where their interests align (Afghanistan, ISIS, drug trafficking, etc.), but Iran will continue to lead the so-called “axis of resistance”, and that will not sit well with U.S. policymakers.

Iran Nuclear Negotiations Lausanne Switzerland

Second, the much discussed idea that Israel will react to the nuclear deal by allying itself with Saudi Arabia and Hamas in opposition to Iran is also unrealistic. Despite all the rumors of high level meetings, it is hard to see how Saudi Arabia, whose radically conservative, Wahhabi version of Islam, provides the ideological underpinning for the Islamic State (ISIS), can ever align itself with Israel. With respect to Hamas, the ceasefire agreement between Israel and the Hamas government in Gaza is getting long in the tooth. Israel has not implemented much of what it agreed to, and thus the same conditions of poverty, deprivation, and lack of hope that led to the last two wars still exist in Gaza. The next war may not be far away.

Third, despite the best efforts of Russia, Iran, and the U.S., the situation in Syria will remain a festering sore and a source of instability and chaos. It is hard to see a solution. With major regional players such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, seeing the region through a sectarian lens, committed to the overthrow of the government of Syrian President Assad and, at best, ambivalent about ISIS, a coalition of western and regional powers to stabilize Syria is very unlikely. As long as ISIS remains in place, a solution to Iraq’s collapse as a contiguous and sovereign state is impossible and the Kurdish problem will remain unresolved.

Fourth, the window of opportunity to realign the Middle East will soon close. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections, and given the influence of the Israel lobby on U.S. Middle East policy, the next administration is likely to be less open to growing Iranian influence in the region. Israel will certainly not elect a more accommodating government. Whatever rapprochement is achieved by the Obama administration in its last year in office will be short lived. Iran, seeing its hopes of greater integration with the west dashed and strengthened by the removal of sanctions, will be forced to look east to Russia and China for allies.

In 2006, the Secretary of State, following the U.S. invasion and destruction of Iraq and Israel’s destruction of Gaza, famously declared the destruction of Lebanon by Israel as the “birth pangs of the new Middle East” and confirmed the U.S. policy of “creative chaos” in which the old order is destroyed and in its place a new order arises which will serve the goals of U.S. policy. The U.S., having created the “new Middle East,” will have to live with the consequences for some time.

Six Things You Should Know about Iran and the Nuclear Deal

In July, after almost two years on nearly continuous negotiations, the EU3+3 and Iran reached an agreement as to how best to deal with Iran’s nuclear program and international concerns that Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Since that agreement, politicians and pundits, particularly in Israel and the U.S., have bisected and trisected the terms in an effort to make a case either for or against the agreement. In the debate over the merits, facts have been a scarce commodity. As the U.S. Congress approaches the September 17 deadline to either approve or disapprove the agreement, it would be useful to examine the realities surrounding Iran and its nuclear program.

  1. Iran is not ruled by a bunch of mad mullahs – Following the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Reza Pahlavi’s oppressive regime, Iran established an Islamic republic in which Islamic principles play an important role. The constitution vests ultimate power in the Supreme Leader who is indirectly elected for life through the Assembly of Experts. In practice the Supreme Leader tends to remain above the “hurley burley” of day-to-day politics. Although he is the ultimate decision maker in national security affairs, he rarely overturns decisions of the Supreme National Security Council. In many ways the Iranian governmental structure is similar to that of the United States with separation of powers and checks and balances, thus making it difficult to understand the decision-making process.
  2. In general minorities are not persecuted or oppressed – Shia Islam of the “Twelver” variety (The three branches of Shia Islam are Twelver, Zaidi or “Fiver” and Ismaili or “Sevener”.) makes up the overwhelming faith of Iranians. Christians, Jews, Sunni Muslims and Zoroastrians are recognized and are guaranteed representation in Parliament. Adherents to the Baha’i faith, which was actually founded in Iran, are considered heretics and are persecuted. While there remain limits on jobs that can be held, most adherents to the recognized faiths, particularly Jews, are comfortably ensconced in the middle class.
  3. The Islamic Republic is probably the most secular Muslim country in the Middle East – Iran’s large, young, western-oriented population tends to push the envelope of governmental restrictions on personal behavior. Despite being officially banned, alcoholic beverages are readily available. Friends have said to me “under the Shah we used to pray at home and go out to drink; now we drink at home and go out to pray.” Current President Hassan Rouhani has taken steps to reduce interference in the daily lives if citizen, instructing the morality police to “lighten up.”
  4. Women play an important role in the highly educated, young workforce – One of important reforms of the revolution was to extend education to the rural areas and, by separating the sexes, to encourage fathers to allow their daughters to attend school. While it’s true that a glass ceiling remains, women now make up 60 percent of the college students and 60 percent of the workforce.
  5. Iranian policy does not call for the destruction of Israel – Since the 1990s Iranian policy, with respect to the Israel/Palestine situation, declares that Iran would abide by the will of the Palestinian people and their leaders as reflected in an open referendum. The statement, often repeated by Israeli and Western media, that Iran wants to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth” is a politically motivated, mistranslation of a comment by Ayatollah Khomeini that Israel’s policies would result in the disappearance of the Jewish State from the pages of history. Given that Israel’s policies over the past two decades have resulted in a situation where non-Jews will soon outnumber Jews, Khomeini may have been prescient.
  6. If Iran lives up to its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), what the U.S. Congress does is irrelevant – The JCPOA, signed by the EU3+3 and Iran in Vienna on July 14, 2015, envisions a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, stringent restrictions on any path to a nuclear weapon and removal of nuclear-related sanctions. On July 20 the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the JCPOA. With the lone exception of Israel, every other nation has expressed support for the JCPOA. As Hooman Majd pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, “The deal isn’t about the United States anymore. If Iran abides by it (even as America rejects it) the rest of the world will too, and the United States will have killed not the deal but its own credibility, the tremendous goodwill it has in Iran, and even its own economic interests. And Iran, the Iranians know, will abide by the treaty, make do in a world without America, and will re-elect, in 2017, the president who brought them the promise of a better life.” This train has left the station.