President Obama has affirmed repeatedly that, under his leadership, America's bond with Israel is absolute, unshakeable, and rock solid. But the Israeli public is not convinced. A Jerusalem Post poll in March 2010 found that just 9 percent of Jewish Israelis think his administration is pro-Israel, against 48 percent who think it is pro-Palestinian. J Street's pollster, Jim Gerstein, looked for a different result, but even his survey found that 55 percent of Israelis do not believe that Obama supports Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also is not convinced that Obama is necessarily in Israel's camp. Abbas sees rich opportunities to drive a wedge between Israel and its "most reliable" partner, particularly on what the Arabs consider settlements in Jerusalem. Abbas witnessed, from Obama's first day, this administration's fixation on the most divisive and vexatious issue in the U.S.-Israel relationship. He sees that Obama does not regard the Jewish presence in the parts of Jerusalem that Jordan held before 1967 to be legitimate. (One wonders: Is Obama aware that more than half the Jews in Jerusalem live in this forbidden eastern half of the capital?)
Few blame Abbas for exploiting the opening that Obama created. Obama very kindly pointed a finger to his own soft underbelly, and Abbas merely accepted the invitation to target the sweet spot the president so generously exposed. Abbas told Obama that he cannot have the peace talks the president so desperately craves until Obama imposes on Israel the freeze in Jerusalem that the president promised.
Secretary of State Clinton admits that the Palestinian leader's demand for a settlement freeze as a precondition for talks is unprecedented. For 17 years, Abbas did negotiate with seven Israeli prime ministers without setting a precondition for a settlements freeze. But now he says a freeze is an absolute and non-negotiable requirement before talks even can begin. Abbas says, "At first, President Obama stated ... that Israel must stop all construction activities in the settlements. Could we demand less than that?" Subtly, and without any audible objection from Obama, Abbas has abandoned the Oslo policy of negotiating with Israel and reverted to the pre-Oslo strategy that it is America's job to impose a solution. Abbas remonstrated to Obama, "You said in the United Nations ... 'A Palestinian state is in the vital national security interest of the United States' ... This is a promise and a debt around your neck."
This is the first time since Oslo that the Palestinian leadership is flatly refusing to sit and negotiate with a prime minister of Israel. The peace process began with a pledge from Arafat that the "PLO commits itself to the Middle East peace process ... and declares that all outstanding issues relating to permanent status will be resolved through negotiations." Abbas repeated this pledge just three years ago at the Annapolis Conference in front of 47 foreign ministers, where he declared that "We agree to immediately launch good-faith, bilateral ... vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations." Now Abbas is putting all that aside, to pressure the U.S. to pressure Israel.
This month, Abbas is taking his campaign to the UN Security Council, where the Palestinians are circulating a draft resolution that would declare Israeli "settlements" in Jerusalem to be "illegal." The draft demands a halt to all construction in the eastern half of Israel's capital city. It's openly a maneuver to hoist Obama on his own petard. "We drafted it using the same words that Secretary Clinton is using and so we don't see why the U.S. would veto it," Abbas said.
Successive administrations have deplored settlement activity as an obstacle to peace, but no American president since Jimmy Carter has taken the view that building Jewish homes in the West Bank or in East Jerusalem is "illegal." Carter said in April 1980: "We do not think they are legal," because, his secretary of state explained, "Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention applies to the territories." (This paragraph says, "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.") But defenders of Israel respond that obligations under the Geneva Convention apply to territory occupied by one state but legally recognized as the property of another state. The West Bank and East Jerusalem are not such a case, because they were not legally recognized as the sovereign territory of any state prior to their capture by Israel in 1967. They are, therefore, "disputed" rather than "occupied" territories, and the Convention does not apply.
President Ronald Reagan rejected Carter's position and said the settlements were "ill-advised" and "unnecessarily provocative" but "not illegal." All American presidents since Reagan have taken this view, and none has repeated Carter's formulation that settlements are "illegal." Obama said that settlements "undermine efforts to achieve peace," but he, too, has not said that they are "illegal."
The Carter administration was also the first and only U.S. government to vote in favor of a UN Security Council Resolution declaring Israeli settlements to be "illegal": Resolution 465 on March 1, 1980. (Carter subsequently disavowed his ambassador's vote for this resolution, saying that his instruction had not been properly communicated and that the U.S. should have abstained. An abstention still would shave permitted the resolution to pass.)
Resolution 465 said that "the Fourth Geneva Convention ... is applicable to the Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem." It said that "all measures taken by Israel to change the ... demographic composition ... or status of the ... territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem ... have no legal validity and that Israel's policy and practices of settling parts of its population ... in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention." In addition to voting for Resolution 465, Carter abstained on (and thereby permitted to pass) two other resolutions against Israeli settlements containing similar language: Resolutions 446 on March 22, 1979, and 452 on July 20, 1979.
No president since Carter has permitted anti-Israel UN Security Council Resolutions on settlements to pass. Ronald Reagan vetoed two: a draft vetoed August 2, 1983 (while Menachem Begin was Israeli prime minister) and a draft vetoed January 30, 1986 (during Shimon Peres's term). And Bill Clinton vetoed three draft resolutions condemning Israeli settlements, one while Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, draft Resolution S/1995/394 vetoed on May 17, 1995; and two while Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister the first time, draft Resolution S/1997/199 vetoed on March 7, 1997 (even though it was sponsored by the United Kingdom and France), and draft Resolution S/1997/241 vetoed on March 21, 1997.
In addition to these five vetoes, successive U.S. administrations since Carter have defeated by "silent veto" many other anti-settlement initiatives at the Security Council that did not reach the voting stage because fervent American opposition dissuaded their proponents from pressing the issue.
Every American president since Nixon has used the veto to block resolutions hostile to Israel. Richard Nixon vetoed two such draft Security Council resolutions, Gerald Ford four, Ronald Reagan 18 (!), George H.W. Bush four, Bill Clinton three, and George W. Bush nine. Even Jimmy Carter mustered the courage to veto one, on April 30, 1980, because it was inimical to the Camp David Accords he had brokered. In all, seven American presidents have recorded 41 vetoes in Israel's defense at the UN Security Council.
Lack of balance in the 41 draft resolutions vetoed was the reason stated or implied most frequently to explain the need for a veto. Resolutions deploring Israel's use of force or Israeli security measures have been vetoed for failing to acknowledge and equally criticize actions on the Arab side, especially terrorist acts, that gave rise to the Israeli measures for self-defense. Resolutions proposing international conferences and other diplomatic initiatives favored by the Arabs have been vetoed because they would conflict with U.S. peace initiatives and direct negotiations among the parties. Several draft resolutions were vetoed because they were deemed inconsistent with Resolutions 242 and 338 or with signed peace agreements. At least two draft resolutions were vetoed because they blamed the government of Israel for extreme acts that were committed by a few Israeli citizens who were being investigated and prosecuted by the Israeli authorities. In about half the 41 veto statements, the American representative acknowledged that the United States shared concerns about a given Israeli action but objected to the wording of the resolution or with the appropriateness of bringing the issue to the Security Council.
The Obama administration has declined up to now to say whether it would veto a draft resolution declaring Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem to be illegal, because, said State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner on December 29, "It's a hypothetical at this point." But Toner did signal unhappiness with the Palestinian draft resolution: "Direct negotiations are the only path through which the parties will ultimately reach ... our mutual goal. And final status issues can only be resolved through negotiations between the parties and not by recourse to the UN Security Council, so we've consistently opposed any attempt to take these kinds of issues to the Council."
Members of Congress are less reticent about the necessity to veto. On June 21, 2010, a bipartisan letter to Obama from 87 senators said, "We ask you to stand firm in the future at the United Nations Security Council and to use your veto power, if necessary, to prevent any ... biased or one-sided resolutions from passing."
A tactic sometimes used at the Security Council by administrations in the past is to offer a substitute resolution with softer language or added content to make it less one-sided. A substitute could omit the assertion that settlements are a violation of the Geneva Convention and therefore are "illegal." Special Mideast Envoy George Mitchell said on January 6, 2010, "There are disputed legal issues [in East Jerusalem]. ...We could spend the next 14 years arguing over disputed legal issues or we can try to get a negotiation to resolve them in a manner that meets the aspirations of both societies."
A bolder approach would be a more balanced substitute resolution that not only removed the dubious legal claim but that also declared the Palestinian policy of setting unprecedented preconditions for peace talks to be unacceptable. George Mitchell said on September 22, 2009, "We do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them. And we urge others not to impose preconditions." A resolution should demand that the Palestinian Authority sit down with Israel to negotiate, the central imperative of the Oslo Accords. The substitute resolution could refer to the Quartet Statement of March 19, 2010, which called for "the resumption without preconditions of direct bilateral negotiations that resolve all final status issues, as previously agreed by the parties."
A one-sided resolution not balanced in this way would violate the injunction that Secretary Clinton laid down on December 10, to "stop trying to assign blame for ... failure, and focus instead on what [the parties] need to do to make these efforts succeed." As a presidential candidate, Obama called on the Bush administration to veto resolutions that blame only Israel. But now that he is president, Obama is not going to have any leverage to prevent one-sided resolutions unless he overcomes the veto reticence he has shown until now and finds the courage to threaten his first veto there. Blocking this Palestinian maneuver against Israel at the UN Security Council could also help persuade the Israeli public that Obama's commitment to Israel is more than rhetoric.
Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was a defendant in the recently dismissed AIPAC case. He is now director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum.