Will Obama Launch a January Surprise at the United Nations?
Anxiety continues to roil through the pro-Israel community about a possible last-minute political move by the Obama administration that could permanently alter the Israeli-Palestinian geopolitical landscape.
Forty-eight hours after the November 8 election, I flew to South Florida for a series of lectures and briefings organized by StandWithUs, NOVA Southeast University and other organizations, as part of the State Department’s International Education Week. The goal of my tour was to analyze the prospects regarding relations with Israel in the last weeks of the Obama administration.
Audiences everywhere were on the edge of their seats, asking whether President Obama would take extraordinary passive or active action at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to recognize a Palestinian state or to impose a peace settlement, including a territorial mandate tracking the lines of the 1948 truce. Unlike General Assembly resolutions, which are not binding, the UNSC generally creates lasting pillars of international law.
As we approach January 20, 2017, uncertainty abounds about Obama’s intentions — even among political experts.
President Obama remains personally silent, and his administration has offered some assurances in recent days. But embedded ambiguities in each of those assurances only increase the speculation.
For example, in recent days, unnamed administration sources have been quoted by the Associated Press suggesting that President Obama “has nearly ruled out any major last-ditch effort to put pressure on Israel over stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians.” The phrase “nearly ruled out” sticks out to many.
Earlier this week, America’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told Israel’s Army Radio that America “will always oppose one-sided initiatives,” adding that this position “is a long-term policy. Whenever there were one-sided initiatives, we opposed them in the past and we will always oppose them.” Skeptics note that “opposing” such a UN move is not the same as blocking it with a veto.
Those who know the administration best remain queasy that a sudden and unexpected move may play out in the Security Council in the coming weeks. Obama has circumvented Congress on the Iran nuclear deal and other issues where the President can act unilaterally. This has led many to worry about his true intentions.
Congressman Ed Royce told an interviewer, “If you are heavily signaling that you’re not going to oppose and veto UN Security Council resolutions that seek to impose one-sided solutions, the consequence is others will take your measure, and the momentum will build, given the natural attitudes at the UN.”
The most likely scenarios for any Obama action at the UNSC are variations of the following three:
1. Unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state within specified or approximate borders following the 1948 armistice lines, where no Palestinian state ever existed. In virtually all world forums, this would more juridically move the status of Israel’s administrative presence in Judea and Samaria from disputed to occupation.
2. Abstain from vetoing a pending French resolution that would impose settlement lines and/or recognize a Palestinian state within 18 months, absent an agreement by the parties.
3. Impose a territorial settlement within a two-year deadline if the parties do not craft one themselves.
Any of these three measures would undermine the prospects for direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and bring the parties closer to an entrenched stalemate.
The suspense has been intensified by developments in recent days.
On November 28, former President Jimmy Carter authored a passionate op-ed in the New York Times entitled “America Must Recognize Palestine.” Carter advised President Obama to exercise one final chance of “countering the one-state reality that Israel is imposing on itself and the Palestinian people.” Carter continued, “Recognition of Palestine and a new Security Council resolution are not radical new measures, but a natural outgrowth of America’s support for a two-state solution.”
Carter has not been a lone voice — many leftists are urging such a move by Obama to thwart any Trump policy moves after January 20, 2017. Trump is expected to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence recently repeated that stance.
On December 1, President Obama once again signed a six-month extension of the presidential override preventing the implementation of the Congressional mandate moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. President-elect Trump has promised to move the embassy.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is fully aware of the US political dynamics, and recently confirmed that he continues to stay in close contact and coordination with the French government over its pending UN resolution. Abbas has repeatedly assured his people and the world that the UN would deliver Palestinian independence in 2017.
Eighty-eight US senators have written a pointed bipartisan letter to Obama warning him not to launch a lame-duck effort at the UN. Likewise, after his electoral win, Trump’s Mideast adviser sent a private message to the White House warning against any such action in view of the overwhelming popular and congressional sentiment against it.
Former UN Ambassador John Bolton, on behalf of the President-elect, was far more audible in an interview on November 20, 2016, when he publicly warned Obama against any UN action that imposes peace or recognizes a Palestinian state. On November 29, the House of Representatives passed a nonbinding bipartisan bill urging President Obama to continue blocking any UN resolution that would unilaterally impose a one-sided peace, including by a failure to veto such a resolution in the UN Security Council.
If push comes to shove, some observers suggest that Israel may have an unforeseen ally in Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are in regular communication with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Putin, as many observe, would love to frustrate the Obama Administration, as he has on Syria, and openly coordinate with the incoming Trump administration. For his part, Abbas met with Medvedev just last month in Jericho, and reportedly even named a street after him.
In a speech on December 4 at the annual Saban Forum, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US would oppose a resolution that “is a biased, unfair resolution calculated to delegitimize Israel,” but didn’t rule out the possibility of a veto suspension.
Until 11:59 a.m. on January 20, 2017, no one knows whether President Obama will add another notch to his legacy or allow the future destiny of Israel and Palestinians to be written by others, including the parties themselves.
Edwin Black is the New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust, Financing the Flames and The Farhud. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.