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Op-Ed

U.N. Vote and Kerry Speech Will Impede Prospects For Peace

Responsible leaders on both sides should collaborate to dial down the rhetoric and prevent Israel from becoming a political football

Jonathan A. Greenblatt
CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post on January 1, 2017

Whatever the motivation of the Obama Administration, the events of this past week mark a dramatic low point in US-Israeli relations. The Kerry speech has commanded attention in the past 48 hours, but the disastrous decision to abstain on United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution #2443 is more likely to be recorded as a milestone that doomed the peace process.  It is a moment that could trigger any number of highly destructive consequences for Israel and the two-state solution that the Administration claims to champion.

To start with, the abstention represents an incredibly negative bookend that closes the foreign policy section of the Obama Library.  Indeed, its Israel policy seemed uneven at best and unfair at worst.  There were many moments that fed the skepticism of the pro-Israel, pro-peace community. These include the initial decision to skip Israel in a series of speeches across the region in 2009; the ill-advised decision to force the Israeli government to freeze settlement construction before supporting peace talks that same year; the push in 2015 for the Iran nuclear deal despite the protests of Israelis across the political spectrum and the blithe dismissal of the genocidal rhetoric of the Islamic Republic; and the complete failure to deal with surging non-state actors like Hezbollah because of their alignment with Iran.

It should be noted that the Administration has stood by Israel in other respects.  The president might point to prior UNSC vetoes and the landmark $38 billion arms deal concluded earlier this year.  Yet, the personal rancor between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu seemed to drive the dynamic of the bilateral relationship for nearly eight years.  The patronizing tone of Secretary Kerry’s speech seemed familiar to many Israelis who had grown weary of hectoring from the Obama Administration.

Whatever the motivation, the failure to veto UNSC #2443 was a disaster which will have a number of highly destructive consequences for Israel and the peace process. I can see several constituencies who will be impacted by this decision, all in ways that will hamper, not help, the peace process.

First, the Palestinians.  Prior to this vote, Palestinian leadership had embraced a core philosophy of rejectionism and negation, denying the legitimacy of Israel and the three thousand year historic connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel.  And yet, UNSC #2443 gave this no mention and Secretary Kerry elided this fact in his recent remarks. So it should be no surprise that the Palestinians undoubtedly will learn the wrong lesson from these events. And yet, it is the lesson they have inculcated repeatedly after anti-Israel, international decisions. Simply put, time is on their side and they don't have to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state because Israel eventually will disappear if they are only patient. This mantra has been destructive to chances for peace and destructive to the interests of the Palestinian people. The vote ensures its continuation.

Second, the international community. The anti-Israel forces already had great influence throughout the U.N. system, particularly at the U.N. Human Rights Council and UNESCO.  Today they likely feel even more emboldened. More extreme language and resolutions surely will follow, playing right into the hands of those individuals here in the US who would like to see the U.N. disappear. There is much to criticize at the U.N.  And yet, despite all its faults, the world is still far better off with such a body than it would be without it.

Third, the Radical left. Extreme elements of the left long ago adopted the cause of delegitmization of Israel and embraced tactics like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. We have seen this trend in Europe, creating negative consequences for Jewish communities on the ground in numerous countries.  We also have seen this radicalism infect certain elements of the left here in the U.S. such as campus organizations, some Protestant denominations and even some labor unions. The controversial Movement for Black Lives platform released earlier this summer seemed to draw directly from the playbook of this crowd.  This group likely will see this vote as extending an imprimatur to their anti-Israel agenda. We can expect that such groups to view this as a seminal moment to step up their activity.

And yet, such boycotts and hostility make peace far more distant.

Finally, the far right in Israel. There are numerous groups inside Israel who oppose a two-state solution and seek to create facts on the ground to obviate the possibility of such a solution. They will use the UNSC vote and the U.S. abstention to argue that the world is against Israel, that Israel needs to do what it has to do since there is no partner for peace and even the U.S. can't be counted on. The U.N. vote will benefit those who are against a reasonable solution to the age-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now, although President Obama is the de facto leader of the Democratic party, a silver lining in this fiasco was the apparent resuscitation of the bipartisan case for U.S. support for the Jewish state.  In the wake of widespread Democratic support for the Iran deal and despite the far-left leanings of Bernie Sanders and many of his supporters, Democratic leadership in the Senate and House rose to denounce the UNSC abstention with a fervor that matched the outrage of their GOP colleagues.  Still, the drift of some elements of the party toward radicalism may reinforce an already perceived gap in support for Israel between Democrats and Republicans. Responsible leaders on both sides should collaborate to dial down the rhetoric and prevent Israel from becoming a political football. This may score points in the short-term with certain segments of the electorate, but it’s a bad long-term trend for the bilateral relationship.

So what is there to do to repair the damage? First, friends of Israel everywhere must stand together now more than ever in support of the Jewish state. We must make the case that the international community's approach to the conflict has gone off the tracks by giving the Palestinians a free pass when they remain the party mainly responsible for the absence of negotiations and continued conflict. We must shine a light on the three-pronged Palestinian strategy of intransigence, internationalization and incitement even as we advocate to Israeli leaders that they hold open the prospect of negotiation as the alternative to Palestinian rejectionism.

We also must do everything we can to help Israel keep open the possibility of two states for two people as the only prospect for peace for both parties.  The so-called one-state solution would be the end of the Jewish state.  Annexation of Palestinian land in the West Bank will not provide an exit from this impasse.  In lieu of a robust political process, those passionate about fostering a two-state solution may need to adopt new approaches, such as supporting person-to-person initiatives to build positive cultural and social relations at the grassroots level between Israelis and Palestinians.  It might mean supporting collaborative economic projects and investment efforts that can create a shared economic future and rekindle hope among entrepreneurs and the local business communities.  It might necessitate interfaith programs to strengthen ties between Jewish and Muslim clergy and their congregants. 

Still, by all measures, this is a very bad moment. There is much work to be done, especially for Israelis to trust America as its most reliable ally. Coming at the time of Chanukah, however, a holiday that represents optimism in the face of the most insurmountable of obstacles, we need to reassert our own optimism and faith in the future. A strong and rational approach to these complicated issues can prevail if we all come together to make it happen.

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"...friends of Israel everywhere must stand together now more than ever in support of the Jewish state. We must make the case that the international community’s approach to the conflict has gone off the tracks by giving the Palestinians a free pass when they remain the party mainly responsible for the absence of negotiations and continued conflict."

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