The United States killed a UN Security Council resolution that would have declared Israeli settlements on Palestinian territories illegal by vetoing a draft resolution that reflected American sentiments.
The isolation of the United States, which did not want the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Security Council, was palpable. The 14 other council members voted in favor. And more than 100 countries, including some US allies in Europe and South America, signed up as co-sponsors of the measure (see full text of the draft resolution here).
However, the underlying questions -- the dispute over Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the stalled peace negotiations and the impact on Israel and Palestinians of uprisings against Middle East dictators were far from being resolved in Friday's uproar.
The American action is bound to be criticized by many in the Middle East and beyond. US Ambassador Susan Rice originally wanted a council statement (which does not carry the weight of a resolution) that American supporters of Israel roundly condemned.
In the meeting, Rice emphasized a council resolution would not move the parties closer to negotiations and "risks hardening the position of both sides." At the same time she rejected "in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity." In a telephone conference with reporters later she said Washington opposed the word "illegal" in the draft resolution she called one-sided.
Israeli Ambassador Meron Reuben told the council that only direct negotiations would do. "The road to peace lies between Israel and Ramallah, only 10 minutes apart." And Lebanon's ambassador, Nawaf Salam, who introduced the resolution, said settlements were against international law and "that is why we came to the Security Council, and that is why we will continue to come back to the Security Council."
Contradictions and Perceptions
The Israeli position on the lack of negotiations is that during the 10-month settlement freeze, the Palestinians procrastinated for nine months. As soon as the freeze ended, they stopped negotiations unless it was extended. The Palestinian version is that they had submitted a detailed position paper, including maps based on negotiations in Annapolis that ended in November 2007, and that should have been considered.
Sometimes discussions resemble the film Rashomon, where the same incidents evolve into opposing facts and perceptions. For example, a large majority of the Jewish population has opposed the continuation of the settlement-building moratorium. But public opinion surveys also show a majority support a two-state solution and are not sympathetic to the settlers.
Gershon Baskin, the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, writing in the Jerusalem Post, attempts to bridge the gap:
"How can this contradiction be explained? Simply, Israelis hate being told what to do. It is the davka principle (orneriness) at work. But most Israelis don't want to see their resources being wasted building roads and buildings in settlements they know will be vacated. When the world told us to leave Gaza, we resisted, but when we came to the decision ourselves, it had the support of the vast majority. With the clock ticking, this is now becoming a 'cut off your nose to spite your face' mentality.'"
Palestinians now want international recognition as an independent state (or as Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon called it, a Facebook state), an attempt the US would most likely veto. Still, the strategy of a virtual state would change the rules of any negotiations, conducted on a state by state basis rather than a state and a territory.
British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on behalf of Britain, France and Germany, condemned Israeli settlements as "illegal under international law." He said that the three nations hope that an independent state of Palestine would join the United Nations as a new member state by September. Portugal's ambassador, José Filipe Moraes Cabral, then added his voice to the statement.
Middle East protests
With the turmoil in Arab nations, will there be non-violent demonstrations in Gaza and the West Bank? In Gaza, they may be against Hamas but in the West Bank it would be against Israeli occupation. If Israel's response is violent, the world could look at Israel just as it looks at Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
The Jerusalem Post in a February 18 editorial saw it differently:
"At a time when it has become more clear than ever that repressive, bellicose autocratic regimes are the main source of instability in the regime -- and not an Israeli- Palestinian conflict that remains unresolved because of Arab intransigence -- the US should be placing itself staunchly in Israel's corner. It should not be entertaining compromise proposals that imply the further delegitimization of some of Israel's historic and security imperatives."
Not so, said the Haaretz paper in its February 16 editorial:
"Israel should not wait until this new Arab and American policy develops into a steam-roller. It would do better, in contrast to its usual policy, to view the changes in the Middle East as an opportunity and to preemptively propose a diplomatic initiative... The prime minister cannot make do with "carefully monitoring" developments. He must present a realistic plan, complete with a timetable that will enable (Palestinian) President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table."
Recently documents released by Al Jazeera show concessions by the Palestinians, similar to those in previous negotiations. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's stance often remains a mystery. The speculation is that security issues are paramount rather than ideological stances on the settlers' rights. Says Baskin:
"I say that Netanyahu is an intelligent man; his understanding of the issues is not shallow. He knows what a potential agreement looks like. He knows exactly what the parameters of peace are. He knows how far the Palestinians can compromise, and he also has to be aware of the consequences of not reaching an agreement."
"That is exactly what is so perplexing about the question."