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.

Will Obama Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory with the Islamic State?

 

As the Western main stream media has focused its breathless coverage on the brutal murders of hostages and captives by the Islamic State (IS), it has largely ignored the first green shoots of progress toward containing the IS threat in Iraq. While the world has been transfixed by the videos of beheadings of hostages such as Peter Kassig, the Iraqi army, augmented by Iranian advisers, Shite militias and U.S. air power, has quietly reclaimed several Iraqi towns such as Juf al-Saker and Baiji from IS. These events, along with the ability of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds to create a stalemate in the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobane, have managed to break the momentum of IS and to damage severely its aura of invincibility and inevitability.

Within the areas of Syria and Iraq controlled by IS, the brutal tactics used by IS to enforce its 8th century version of Islamic Law have begun to alienate many tribesmen. Residents of Mosul and Aleppo, who originally welcomed IS as a force able to bring order out of chaos, have begun to turn against the brutal IS system of governance.

While it is unclear what the Obama administration’s strategic goals are in the campaign against IS and what “degrade and destroy” actually means, the tactic to harass from the air and hope for the best actually seems to be getting some traction. While this tactic has serious potential for unintended consequences of blowback from returning foreign jihadist fighters and families of those killed by U.S. air strikes, for now, it probably remains the least bad alternative. Containment of IS may be the best option.

If the U.S. goal of destroying IS means pushing it out of the territories that it has conquered in Iraq and Syria and restoring the colonial borders, significant ground forces will be required. The Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi army will not be up to the task. The other alternatives are Turkey, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the United States. Turkey, concerned about the rise of Kurdish nationalism, supportive of its Sunni coreligionists in IS and seeing the Alawite Assad regime in Syria as illegitimate, has been reluctant to get involved. Iran, concerned about turning the conflict into a sectarian war, deeply mistrustful of U.S. objectives in Iraq and Syria, facing the imminent breakdown of nuclear negotiations and benefiting from a U.S. quagmire, is also reluctant to get directly engaged in support of the American effort. The U.S., unable to engage with the Syrian regime or Hezbollah, is left with few palatable options.

At this point the U.S. seems to be committed to training the “moderate elements” of Syrian opposition and gradually increasing the U.S. “boots on the ground.” Turning the Iraq campaign into another U.S. war in Iraq will play into the IS narrative of a Western war on Islam, eliminating any hope of wooing moderate and secular Iraqi Sunni tribesmen to the cause. All bets are off as to the outcome. Training five thousand “moderate rebels” in Syria is an equally hopeless effort. Five thousand outside recruits stand no chance of competing with thirty thousand plus hardened IS fighters.

Deploying U.S. forces into the middle of the current four-way Syrian civil war is a recipe for disaster. Such deployment would inevitably bring the forces into conflict with the Syrian military, either on the ground or with anti-aircraft missile sites. How Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran, would react is anybody’s guess. Given the current state of U.S.-Iran and U.S.-Russia relations, they are unlikely to react favorably. In the worst case, it could result in a region-wide conflict.

As the Obama administration, under pressure from war hawks and liberal interventionists, gradually escalates the U.S. involvement in solving the IS problem, the risks associated with this involvement also escalate. Better to realize that the solution to the IS problem is a Middle East regional political issue. The U.S. can help, but cannot solve the problem. There is no military solution to what, at its core, is a political problem.