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.

The Russians are Coming

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011 and gradually morphed into full blown, vicious, deadly civil war, U.S. policies toward the conflict have been affected by some of the faults that have plagued U.S. Middle East policies for over fifty years and which I have described in my recent book, Fault Lines. When the uprisings began as peaceful demonstrations protesting corruption within the government, income and wealth inequality and lack of economic opportunity, the U.S. was faced with conflicting policy choices. On one hand the United States government could work with Iran to influence the Syrian government to negotiate with the opposition forces and to address their grievances peacefully (not likely given the state of U.S.-Iranian relations), recognize domestic political concerns and stay out of the situation, letting the Syrians solve the problem for themselves, or weigh in on the side of the rebel factions in hopes of overthrowing the Syrian government and thereby weakening Iran and Hezbollah and reducing the threat to Israel. The Obama administration decided to try and balance the last two alternatives, providing some support for the rebels while not committing enough American troops to effectively change the facts on the ground.

Continuing its practice of trying to find “good guys” among the myriad of fractious and diverse opposition groups who would become its proxy army, the U.S. tried to organize, equip and train the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This endeavor was a complete failure as, after millions of dollars spent, the number of troops in the field can be counted on one hand and most of the trainees, arms and equipment have ended up in the hands of jihadist Islamist groups. As the policy gradually fell apart, the conflict deteriorated into a stalemate.

Syrian President Bashar Assad Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Damascus Civil War

Photos of Assad and Russia’s Putin are seen during a pro-Assad protest in front of the Russian embassy in Damascus, Syria (credit Freedom House)

Enter the Russians. Unencumbered by conflicting policy goals, having only the objectives of keeping the Syrian government in power, willing to work with regional allies such as Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah, concerned about violent Islamic groups spreading to the homeland, seeing ISIS as its primary adversary and able to rapidly deploy troops and fire power, Russia seems to have quickly affected the facts on the ground.

In fact, Russia already has expanded and upgraded the Syrian Air Base at Latakia allowing it to conduct over thirty five strikes against opposition forces in the first week in October compared with fewer than ten for the U.S. The establishment of a no-fly safe zone along the Turkish border with Iraq and Syria requires the establishment of air superiority. When Turkey agreed to allow U.S. planes to fly combat missions from Incirlik Air Base, the quid pro quo was that the U.S. would turn a blind eye to Turkish air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In the first weeks of strikes, Turkey attacked ISIS three times and Kurdish positions over three hundred times. The presence of Russian forces and aircraft greatly complicates Turkey’s plans to establish a safe zone. This presence also increases the risk of conflict between Russian and Turkish forces. Since Turkey is a member of NATO, there is risk that the U.S. could be drawn in. Most observers expect coordination among Russian, Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah forces in a major offensive prior to the onset of winter.

The shift in the power dynamic could portend a move toward a negotiated settlement. Iran and Russia now have considerable influence with the Assad government. The U.S. seems to have changed its position on Assad being a party to the negotiations, and abandoning its “Assad must go position.” An Allied offensive against the rebels may bring them to the table with a unified, more flexible position. Negotiated endings to civil wars are rare, but one can always hope. In such an event attention could turn to solving the ISIS problem.