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.

Prognosis for the Iran Nuclear Agreement(s): Major Differences Remain

In the days since the P5+1, and since Iran announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), intended to deal with the issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program, there has been much debate surrounding the agreed upon terms and efficacy of the agreement. Opponents in the U.S. and Israel, backed by assorted pundits and think tanks, fearing that agreement would lead to a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran, and concerned about a resulting change in the balance of power in the Middle East, began attacking the agreement before it was even finalized and announced. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pronounced it a “bad deal” even before he had an opportunity to read it.

Following the announcement in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Obama administration began deploying its pundits and think tanks and created a fact sheet purporting to outline the agreed conditions in a concerted effort to mobilize public support and prevent a hostile Congress from taking steps to derail the agreement. Other international players including regional powers have for the most part remained silent.

Iran Nuclear Negotiations Lausanne Switzerland

The ministers of foreign affairs of France, Germany, the European Union, Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States as well as Chinese and Russian diplomats announcing the framework for a Comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme (credit Yagasi, Lausanne, 2 April 2015).


As the various factions debate the pros and cons of the JCPOA, the more important issue is which agreement they are talking about. There appear to be three agreements in play: the original agreement announced in Lausanne by EU Foreign Policy and Security Chief, Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif; the U.S. “Fact Sheet” discussed by President Obama during the Rose Garden briefing; and the “Fact Sheet” issued by Iran’s Foreign Ministry in response to the American document.

On many of the outstanding issues (time frames, limitations on enrichment capacity, etc.), the documents are similar and the differences would appear to be reconcilable. However, on the issue of sanctions relief, the differences appear to be wide and difficult to reconcile. The U.S claims that sanctions will be “suspended” and this will be done in a phased manner as Iran demonstrates that it is abiding by the agreement. The sanction architecture will remain in place so that sanctions can “snap back” if the IAEA does not certify Iran’s compliance. Iran’s position is that the agreement calls for sanctions to be “terminated,” not in a phased manner, but “immediately” upon signing the final agreement.

Arak IR-40 Heavy Water Reactor, Iran (Nanking2012)

Arak IR-40 Heavy Water Reactor, Iran (Nanking2012)

An important factor that contributed to the party’s ability to reach the “Framework Agreement” was the atmosphere of secrecy within which the negotiations took place. While there were some leaks, all parties refrained from commenting on the status of negotiations beyond general statements. At this point, however, both the U.S. and Iran have issued written public position papers that differ widely. While it is understandable that both parties have a need to appeal to their domestic constituencies, the effect of these public pronouncements has been to back each party into a corner and make it very difficult to modify the positions and reach a compromise. This situation will likely lead to another lengthy period of tough negotiations ahead of the self-imposed June 30 deadline.

Drawn out negotiations will present a political problem for President Obama.

One lesson to be learned from Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba is: speed helps. Following his initial announcement of the agreement with the Cubans to improve relations, Obama moved very quickly, taking unilateral executive actions to implement the agreed parameters and marginalize his Congressional opponents. These moves quickly changed the political landscape, putting Congressional opponents behind the curve, energizing his supporters and changing public perceptions of Cuba policy. Except for the occasional misstep, such as sanctioning several Venezuelan officials, a move that forced Raul Castro to make the obligatory anti-American speech, Obama’s policies and tactics appear to have made the change in Cuban relations a done deal.

On the Iran question, the long period of public negotiations will give opponents of normalization time to mobilize opposition and find ways to torpedo any agreement. If no agreement can be reached, what then?

Netanyahu Wins Big; What Did He Lose?

While I was in Israel in 2008, shortly after Barack Obama’s election victory, the mood in the Middle East was euphoric. Headlines in the Arab media proclaimed “Abu Hussein wins” and “A Dream Come True.” The expectations on the street that U.S. policies would change were unrealistically high.

As attention turned to the upcoming Israeli elections in March 2009, there was hope that Israelis also would elect a more moderate government and that the peace process would be revived. An Israeli friend of mine, known for his rather different political views, told me that his dream team was Bibi Netanyahu and Obama. “Netanyahu is so outrageous that even the Americans won’t be able to put up with him,” he said. He underestimated the tolerance of American politicians for outrageous Israeli behavior.

Netanyahu israel election obama middle east palestine democracy

Credit Wikipedia Commons

In this week’s election, Netanyahu and his Likud party have resurrected themselves from a political graveyard, in which they were predicted to trail their major opponent, the Zionist Union, by 4-5 seats, and achieved a stunning landslide victory. Expected by pollsters to get only 22 Knesset seats, Likud won 30 and positioned Netanyahu to form the new governing coalition.

While coalition building in Israel is always an adventure, with much horse trading over who gets the most coveted ministerial positions, Netanyahu should be able to pull together a coalition of right wing secular and religious parties. It has always been clear that the right would have an easier path to a governing coalition (a path that changed little in the election since Likud drew votes from other right wing parties) and that the Zionist Union platform differed more in tone than in substance. The magnitude of the Likud victory and the manner in which it was achieved, however, will have consequences for Middle East politics.

In the run up to the election, seeing Likud trailing by an ever-increasing margin, visualizing the end of his political career, Netanyahu panicked. With the help of his Republican friends in the U.S. Congress, he orchestrated his appearance in front of Congress and attempted to torpedo any nuclear deal with Iran. This move seemed to be designed to make his fraught relationship with Obama even worse. When this tactic did not seem to work, he decided to drop the fiction that he supported a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue and declare that there would be no Palestinian state if he were elected Prime Minister. This was a blatant move to draw votes from the other right wing parties. It worked. Then, in order to ensure a strong turnout, he played the race and fear cards, warning Jewish voters that the Arabs were coming to the polls “in droves.”

It worked. He won. But, what did he win?

With the “two-state solution,” long the cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, now clearly dead, how much longer will a lame duck American President put up with Netanyahu’s antics? At some point Obama will reach the level of frustration that Bill Clinton reached when he famously said to his staff, “Remind me, who is the [expletive] superpower here?”

The European countries, already fed up with the lack of serious progress on the Palestinian issue, have yet another reason to distance themselves from Israel. The tendency in Europe to migrate from anti-Israelism to anti-Semitism will likely intensify.

At home, the electioneering race-baiting will undoubtedly increase the alienation of Israel’s Arab citizens who are now explicitly seen as the enemy. Palestinian Authority President Abbas, having staked his political future on a diplomatic solution, will be weakened even further. Israel’s Arab neighbors, having long promoted the “Arab Peace Proposal” as the path to a “two-state solution,” have had this option taken off of the table. Thus, meeting of the Arab League on March 28 will present some difficult choices.

In the name of political expediency, Bibi Netanyahu seems to have painted Israel into a corner, a place that will be difficult to leave. As Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf wrote yesterday, “For years we have been hearing that Israel will either end the occupation or cease to be a democracy. Could it be that the Jewish public [in Israel] has made its choice?”

The Ukraine Crisis: What We Can Learn from Syria

As the Obama administration debates whether or not to arm the Ukrainian government military forces, the President’s opponents, neo-conservatives, and liberal interventionists alike, have framed the conflict as a weak, indecisive American President versus a neo-Hitler, megalomaniac Russian President. The yearlong Ukraine crisis is now reaching a tipping point, tilting between a domestic insurgency, which has some hope of being resolved through negotiations, and a full-fledged civil war, which is likely to last years, if not decades.

Time is running out for the players to make some intelligent decisions. At this critical stage, perhaps, the four yearlong Syrian conflicts can offer some instructive lessons as to how to move forward.

In 2011, the Syrian conflict began as did the Ukrainian crisis in 2014: with a series of mostly non-violent demonstrations by citizens protesting against government policies and actions. The Syrian demonstrations were met with violent government crackdowns, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of demonstrators and, gradually, the non-violent protesters began to defend themselves with arms, and the demonstrations morphed into an armed rebellion.

The U.S. and its Western allies quickly responded by calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, stating “Assad must go” and making this an a priori condition for negotiations that effectively torpedoed the negotiations. Iran, needing to maintain Lebanese Hezbollah as a deterrent force against Israel, and needing Assad’s government as a conduit for arms and funds to Hezbollah, began to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime. In response Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey began financial and arms support for the rebels. Rather than engaging with all of the external players to bring pressure for a negotiated compromise, the U.S., seeing an opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, began support for the rebels.

Kobani, SyriaOnce external players began to intervene to prop up the weaker side, it became difficult to end the civil wars. No one was thinking about the suffering of ordinary Syrians.

As a result of the choices made early on, the conflict has escalated into a civil war with many internal and external actors. With it, the war brought over two hundred thousand deaths, massive destruction of infrastructure, economic collapse, millions of refugees, and untold human suffering.

If, in 2011, internal and external decision makers had had a crystal ball and could have seen Syria in 2015, it is likely that they would have made different choices. As former Middle East correspondent Charles Glass presciently wrote in a 2013 Guardian article, The last thing Syrians need is more arms going to either side, “This month marks the second anniversary of Syria’s civil war. If the politicians of east and west go on as they are, it will not be the last.”

This month, as the Ukrainian conflict has escalated despite efforts to forge a cease-fire, eight former senior U.S. officials released a report calling on the U.S. to provide military assistance to the Ukrainian government forces. In interviews since the report’s release, the authors have framed the conflict as “good versus evil” and have variously claimed that the goals of the escalation are to maintain U.S. and NATO credibility, to create enough Russian casualties that Russia will back down (ignoring the fact that the escalation will create Ukrainian military and civilian casualties), to create a (bloody) stalemate, and to encourage the overthrow of the Russian government.

Since, to this point, Russian responses to events in Ukraine have been largely defensive, Russia will likely respond by increasing military support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russia, seeing the status of Ukraine as a vital national interest, is unlikely to change its policies regardless of U.S., NATO, and E.U. financial and military pressure. The E.U. countries, particularly Germany and France, seem reluctant to participate in the spiraling conflict.

As this article goes to press, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande are in Moscow consulting about a diplomatic solution. To paraphrase Charles Glass, “This month marks the eighteenth-month anniversary of the Ukraine conflict. If the politicians of east and west go on as they are, it will not be the last.”

Will 2015 be a game changer in Israel/Palestine?

My article can be found on www.foreignpolicyjournal.com as well.

After over 60 years of conflict between Arabs and Jews in Israel/Palestine and after over 20 years of political gridlock during the so-called Oslo Peace Process, conditions and events on the ground may be coming together to bring about significant changes in 2015. In 2014, two events laid the groundwork for these changes. First, the horrific Israeli war on Gaza, which killed over 2,000 Palestinians, most of whom were women and children, and which brought complete devastation to the infrastructure in Gaza, significantly altered the views of both the Palestinians and the international community at large, about the nature of this intractable conflict.

Second, the Palestinian Authority (PA) under President Mahmoud Abbas finally decided not only to talk and to issue threats about internationalizing the conflict, but also to actually take some action. These events, combined with the changing political situation within the major players — Israel, Palestine, the U.S. and the EU — have resulted in a much different political landscape.

The devastation and humanitarian crisis resulting from the Gaza War has united Palestinians, if not their leaders, not only in Israel/Palestine, but also in the diaspora. Within the international community, particularly in Europe, the devastation wrought on a trapped, defenseless population by the self-proclaimed Jewish State, has contributed to an increase in not only anti- Israel sentiment, but also anti-Semitism among the general population. Within the international Jewish community, a population long supportive of human rights, criticism of Israeli government behavior and support for boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) of Israel is becoming more common and vocal.

Organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a U.S.-based group which advocates for “peace, social justice, equality, human rights, respect for international law, and a U.S. foreign policy based on these ideals”, has seen its membership, contributions and influence grow enormously.

The PA, seeing 20 years of fruitless negotiation go nowhere, faced with choices of living with on-going occupation, pursuing a Palestinian state on the international stage or violent resistance, has finally decided to pursue statehood and membership in international organizations through the UN. The U.S., under Israeli pressure, has attempted to thwart this effort at every turn, several times vetoing resolutions that reflect its own policies. Despite strong U.S. opposition the PA has achieved Non-member State status in the UN and in April 2015 will become a member of the International Criminal Court (ICC), a status which will allow it to bring war crimes charges against Israel as well as restrain its own ability to use violence against civilians to achieve its political goals.

The U.S. and Israeli response to these actions has been to threaten to cut off funding to the PA. Israel has begun to withhold payment of tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the PA in accordance with agreements under the Oslo accords. U.S. law mandates a cutoff of aid to the PA should it bring a legal case against Israel in the ICC and legislation has already been introduced in Congress to cut off all aid. These two sources of funding make up a significant portion of the PA budget. In past instances of a cutoff of funds, the oil rich Gulf States have made up the difference.

In today’s environment of low oil prices, an environment that is already straining budgets in the Gulf States, such a rescue is unlikely. Should the funding cutoff continue for a period of time resulting in non-payment of salaries, a collapse of the PA is a likely outcome. This would end PA security cooperation with Israel, forcing Israel to bear the entire burden and cost of maintaining security, straining an already stretched Israeli budget situation.

On the domestic political side, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s unstable governing coalition has collapsed and snap elections have been scheduled for March. While any significant change in government policy is unlikely after the elections, the faces will almost certainly change. In Palestine, President Abbas, an unelected leader, is nearing the end of his run and is thinking about his legacy. He will find it difficult to back down. In the U.S., the Obama administration, having failed in two efforts to mediate the conflict, having maintained a staunch pro-Israel position throughout, faced with a hostile Congress and a lame duck status, seeing the PA move the issue to the UN, has lost all ability to influence the outcome. Obama is unlikely to wade into this quagmire again.

While nothing is certain in this fluid environment, it seems that major shifts are likely. Whether or not they are positive remains to be seen.