Why Obama broke with Israel at UN

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The White House’s decision to break with decades of U.S. policy and allow the U.N. Security Council to condemn Israeli settlements is the culmination of years of bad blood between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

The decision won Obama criticism from across the political spectrum, and almost certainly wouldn’t have been made if Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election.

It opened him up to condemnation from President-elect Donald Trump and the right, and could lead to a battle over U.S. funding for the U.N. in Congress. 

But Obama’s team decided it was worth it.

{mosads}Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said the rapid expansion of settlement activity under Netanyahu had put the possibility of a future peace agreement at risk.

“We could not in good conscience veto a resolution that expressed concerns about the very trends that are eroding the foundation of a two-state solution,” he told reporters. 

Netanyahu’s office, in turn, made some of its harshest criticisms of Obama to date, accusing the president of plotting behind Israel’s back to undermine the Jewish state. 

“The Obama administration not only failed to protect Israel against this gang-up at the U.N., it colluded with it behind the scenes,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. 

Rhodes disputed that claim, saying that Obama only informed his national security team Friday morning of his decision to abstain from the vote. He said the U.S. had no role in drafting the resolution. 

But Rhodes said Netanyahu had only himself to blame for its passage, saying he failed to heed repeated U.S. warnings that increased settlement activity could lead to greater pressure from the international community.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu had the opportunity to pursue policies that would have led to a different outcome today,” Rhodes said.

The administration’s decision was borne out of frustration and a desire to resolve a conflict that has dogged generations of U.S. presidents.

Multiple U.S. administrations have opposed Israeli settlement activity in areas claimed by Palestinians, calling them a major obstacle to a two-state solution. The language of Friday’s resolution was largely in line with that policy.

But since 1980, the U.S. has vetoed settlement-related resolutions at the U.N.

Rhodes explained the U.S. abstained from, instead of voted for, the resolution because it has long viewed the international body as an inappropriate venue to broker a Middle East peace deal due to anti-Israel sentiment of several member states. 

The move could backfire on Obama by emboldening Netanyahu and Trump to pursue hard-line policies toward Palestinians that contradict the president’s approach.  

“As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” Trump tweeted after the vote. 

Rhodes denied the president’s decision would have any bearing on Trump’s policies, which he said were set long before Friday’s vote. 

But he also struggled to explain how it would improve the situation in the Middle East. 

Instead, the decision appeared to be one final chance for Obama to flex his muscles on the world stage in front of Trump, who has publicly taken stances on foreign policy at odds with the current administration. 

“There is one president at a time,” Rhodes said. “President Obama is the president of the United States until Jan. 20 and we are taking this action, of course, as U.S. policy.”

That could make life difficult for the Israeli government down the road in possible peace negotiations, even though Trump appears poised change that policy. 

While the Security Council resolution does not carry practical consequences, it could give Palestinians a precedent to point to on settlement construction in future talks with the Israelis. 

That could have complicated Clinton’s efforts to reach a peace deal if she had won the election. Now it will be Trump’s problem.

Friday’s vote could alter Obama’s legacy on Israel.

Obama has long defended himself from criticism that he did not do enough to aid his nation’s chief ally in the Middle East, pointing to actions like the $38 billion military aid deal both nations struck this year.  

But critics say the move could embolden Israel’s numerous enemies and invite new international pressure against the Jewish state. 

It also deepened an emerging split in the Democratic Party over Israel, which many Jewish groups worry could weaken bipartisan support for the country. 
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the vote “frustrating, disappointing and confounding” and said it will move Israel farther from peace.
But the liberal Jewish group J Street applauded Obama, saying the vote “conveys the overwhelming support of the international community.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is Jewish, also came to Obama’s defense, saying the vote sends a “strong message that the United States still supports a two-state solution.”
Yediot Aharonot, one of Israel’s largest newspapers, called the vote “the lowest moment in the relations between the Israeli government and the Obama administration.”

The vote also kick-started an effort by some Senate Republicans to reduce U.S. financial assistance to the U.N. 

Obama has long valued the U.N. as a venue to broker important international agreements on issues like climate change and prevent foreign wars.

Any withdrawal of financial support would be a rebuke to the president’s vision. 

“If we were to cut funding for the U.N. in response for this resolution, all we would be doing is hurting other people, hurting our own interests,” Rhodes said. 

— This post was updated at 10:06 p.m.


Tags Chuck Schumer Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Israel United Nations

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