President Obama Must Support UN Resolution Condemning Settlements

January 20, 2011 2:24 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

Things are looking up in Israel.

On Saturday night, close to 20,000 people took to the wintry streets of Tel Aviv to demand peace. It was the first major demonstration in years, and was an indication that, particularly among the youth, hope is on its way back.

It is also a sign that many Israelis consider the Netanyahu/Lieberman/Barak triumvirate as little more than a relic. It has accomplished nothing in its term in office other than rupturing relations with Israel's most powerful friend in the Muslim world, Turkey, and pushing world opinion to turn harshly against the Jewish state. (It is hard to recall just how popular Israel was when Yitzhak Rabin was its prime minister.)

Even in the United States, the Jewish community is distancing itself, as is evidenced by the recent work of such prominent pro-Israel journalists as the New York Times' Thomas Friedman, the New Yorker's David Remnick, and the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. Then there is Peter Beinart, former "boy editor" of the New Republic whose soon-to-be-published book on the alienation of young Jews from Israel is already causing trepidation at the lobby.

Things are changing, although the change is obscured by the role of money in buying support for the status quo in Washington. Members of Congress are mostly indifferent to Israel, but not to the donors (mostly Democrats, and liberal on every issue but Israel) who insist that their campaign contributions come at the price of enthusiastic parroting of AIPAC-drafted pieties at every opportunity.

But that won't last forever, mainly because the elders of the community won't be in charge forever. As their kids and grandkids begin writing the checks, right-wing Israeli governments and AIPAC will suddenly sense their very own climate change in Washington. That is the demographic problem that really worries the lobby.

But for now, Washington remains entrenched in the past. That is why President Obama could find an extra $3.5 billion to induce Israel to accept a 90-day settlement freeze without a peep of protest from GOP deficit hawks. Eric Cantor (R-VA) will see schools and veterans hospitals shut down in Richmond before he considers withholding a dime from Netanyahu. And Paul Ryan (R-WI), whose GOP dream budget slashes services to Americans across every demographic, didn't breathe a word about Obama's plan to give $3.5 billion in extra aid to Israel. He is afraid to, no matter what he actually believes.

But maybe it's changing even in Washington — although there is considerably more reason to be hopeful about changes in Jerusalem simply because politicians there are not forced to sing hosannas of praise to Netanyahu to raise campaign funds.

The latest test as to whether the Obama administration is sensing the change will come any day now when the president has to decide if he will use the U.S. veto to block a UN Resolution condemning West Bank settlement expansion.

No doubt his chief Middle East aide, Dennis Ross, former head of AIPAC's Washington Institute for Near East Policy, will urge a veto, but this one is tough for policymakers other than Ross.

In fact, it is rumored that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is pushing back against Ross and his "Israel is always right" policies. (She has despised Netanyahu ever since 1998 when he colluded with the Republicans against President Bill Clinton. She is also personally outraged by the settlements. And she, not Ross, is Secretary of State.)

In the past, presidents have simply vetoed any UN resolution Israel didn't like. But this one may be different for two reasons, according to Tony Karon in Time magazine. The first is the Tunisian uprising.

It was always going to be a struggle for the U.S. to dissuade its Arab allies from going ahead with a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. But last week's people-power rebellion in Tunisia has only made Washington's effort to lobby against the plan more difficult. Tunisia will have given the autocratic leaders of countries such as Egypt and Jordan more reason to fear their own people. For those regimes, symbolically challenging unconditional U.S. support for Israel is a low-cost gesture that will play well on the restive street.

And the second is that the resolution comports 100 percent with stated U.S. policy.

Going ahead with the resolution ... creates an immediate headache for the Obama Administration, over whether to invoke the U.S. veto — as Washington has traditionally done on Council resolutions critical of Israel. The twist this time: the substance of the current resolution largely echoes the Administration's own stated positions.

All this is producing an unprecedented surge of opposition to a U.S. veto. Of course, J Street is organizing against it. But so are a long list of top foreign policy officials and opinion leaders from both parties who have delivered a letter to the president urging him not to surrender to Netanyahu's demands. The letter concludes:

At this critical juncture, how the US chooses to cast its vote on a settlements resolution will have a defining effect on our standing as a broker in Middle East peace. But the impact of this vote will be felt well beyond the arena of Israeli-Palestinian deal-making — our seriousness as a guarantor of international law and international legitimacy is at stake.

America's credibility in a crucial region of the world is on the line — a region in which hundreds of thousands of our troops are deployed and where we face the greatest threats and challenges to our security. This vote is an American national security interest vote par excellence. We urge you to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, AIPAC has pressured 17 senators to sign its draft supporting a U.S. veto on the specious grounds that it is U.S. policy that the issue of settlement expansion can only be resolved in negotiations. This is not true. The U.S. has always held — and President Obama has been emphatic on this point — that settlement expansion is illegal and must be stopped as a prelude to negotiations. That is why he offered Netanyahu that $3.5 billion: to achieve a settlement freeze so that negotiations can begin.

Most senators can do — and will do — whatever is necessary to keep the campaign cash flowing. But a president needs to do what is right for America and also demonstrate that he will not reverse policies on a dime (actually, much more than a dime).

There is one other consideration.

If President Obama really cares about Israel, as he says he does, he will empower those forces inside Israel who are fighting to save their country from its current path. If Israel is just politics to him, he'll go along with AIPAC, Netanyahu and Ross, and abandon Israel to its fate. My hunch is that the president will do the right thing: he will not veto the resolution.