Susan Abulhawa Headshot

A Defining Moment for President Obama's Leadership

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A UN resolution is being circulated among the fifteen members of the Security Council and it is likely that all but the United States will accept it. The language of the resolution affirms what previous UN resolutions and international law have already established: That Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, namely all territory beyond the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem, are illegal.

Although President Obama has made it clear that he opposes these settlements and considers them an impediment to peace, it is expected that the Obama administration will, nonetheless, follow previous administrations in being the only dissenting voice on the Security Council when it comes to resolutions that hold Israel accountable to internationally accepted standards. And by "dissent," I mean veto.

On one hand, a veto by the US can be regarded as nothing new. The US consistently provides this kind of political cover for Israel's crimes. Sometimes an international uproar follows but it dies out without discernible repercussion. But there are reasons to think that a veto of this resolution might not pass so easily. Consequences might be apparent on both the national and international front for the US.

For starters, Obama has been publicly humiliated by Prime Minister Netanyahu's rebuff of an unprecedented American bribe in return for a pittance and temporary adherence to international law to stop settlement construction on confiscated Palestinian land -- partially and for only 90 days. This public rebuke of the President of the United States came not long after other slights, including the announcement of new illegal settlement construction on the eve of Vice President Joe Biden's arrival in Tel Aviv last year.

Israel's public belittling and disregard for its only ally and chief benefactor amounts to biting the hand that feeds it. For Obama to now step in and give sanction for something he openly and repeatedly opposed will further expose his weakness and inability to stand up to a tiny country that arguably owes its survival to the US. A veto will also further increase the isolation of the US from the consensus of the rest of the world, which is increasingly less tolerant of Israel's unrelenting crimes and its lack of accountability.

While the US could withstand such isolation in previous times, there are several reasons why this may not hold true now. For starters, the US is embroiled in two losing wars in the Middle East that make the ire of the "Arab street" (which is sure to be spurred by yet another veto) more relevant. The repressive Arab dictators, who routinely suppress displays of mass political dissent and unrest, might be more apt to hear popular anger at a US veto and press matters more vigorously with the UN given the sweeping popular revolution we are witnessing now in Tunis. Furthermore, Israel's harm to US interests was underscored last year by unprecedented political commentary from the highest echelons of the US military, when Commander General David Petraeus made it clear to the White House that Israel's intransigence was jeopardizing American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The proposed UN resolution merely affirms previous UN resolutions (some of which were even authored by the US), basic tenets of international law, and the already articulated position of the Obama administration regarding Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. It is a minimal recognition of the right of the indigenous population of Historic Palestine to exist as a free people in their own homeland. For Obama to veto this resolution now would surely corroborate the perception of him as a cowering and ineffectual president who cannot withstand the political pressure that Israel exerts domestically in the US. The risk of igniting more popular movements in the Arab world that could overthrow US clients in the region is more real now than ever, given the inspiration from Tunisians. Finally, Obama would risk further harm to American troops in two already damaging and draining wars. Republicans would surely exploit all of the above, which, given the current economy, could easily translate into a one-term presidency.

But what if he allows the resolution to pass?

It is well known that standing up to Israel carries great political risk, including a one-term presidency, as in the case of Jimmy Carter and George Bush Senior, both of whom merely threatened or tried to withhold American tax dollars and loan guarantees for Israel to curtail its flouting of international law. However, rewind a few presidencies to Dwight Eisenhower, the first American president who stood on principle against Israel despite enormous domestic pressure, withheld US tax dollars and even threatened UN sanctions if Israel continued to occupy the Gaza Strip and the Gulf of Aqaba it had invaded and captured in 1956.

On top of that, this all occurred during the home stretch for reelection, a risky time to incur Israel's ire, and Eisenhower's advisors were begging him to back down lest he lose the election. But President Eisenhower had had enough of Israel's trickery and flouting of the law and his resolve was echoed by his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who said: "I am aware how almost impossible it is in this country to carry out a foreign policy not approved by [the Israelis]...but I am going to have one. That does not mean I am anti-Jewish, but I believe in what George Washington said in his Farewell Address that an emotional attachment to another country should not interfere."

The rest is history. Ben-Gurion, Israel's Prime Minister, was forced to turn and leave Gaza. Eisenhower, of course, was reelected. There are many differences that can be cited between the circumstances of Eisenhower's stand and that of Carter's and later Bush, Sr. Eisenhower took his case directly to the American people. On a radio address to the nation, he said:

We are now faced with a fateful moment as a result of the failure of Israel to withdraw its forces behind the Armistice lines, as contemplated by the United Nations Resolutions on this subject.

I would, I feel, be untrue to the standards of the high office to which you have chosen me, if I were to lend the influence of the United States to the proposition that a nation which invades another should be permitted to exact conditions for withdrawal... We cannot -- in the world, any more than in our own nation -- subscribe to one law for the weak, another for the strong .... There can only be one law -- or there will be no peace.

Such is the language of leaders. Rather than back down from a politically inconvenient principled stand, Eisenhower appealed to, and trusted, his people's basic sense of justice and fair play, by revealing the moral clarity of his position. No president since has displayed that kind of leadership vis-à-vis Israel, and our nation continues to pay a heavy price a result. It is for this reason that the US position on this UN resolution may well be a defining moment for President Obama's leadership.

Susan Abulhawa is the author of Mornings in Jenin and founder of Playgrounds for Palestine