Yesterday at the UN, as many countries of the Middle East navigated a great generational change, the United States missed a perfectly timed opportunity to take a stand for peace and human rights. The U.S. vetoed a Security Council resolution, sponsored by 130 nations, calling on Israel to cease settlement activity in Palestinian territory.
The settlements, along with the evictions, demolitions, forced displacements that go with them, are seen as a main obstacle to any legitimate peace process. Human rights groups like Amnesty International have also argued that Israel's policy of settling its civilians on occupied land violates the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The U.S. stood totally isolated as every one of the other 14 members of the Security Council voted for the resolution. The veto was all the more controversial because it contradicts the Obama administration's opposition to settlement activity. UN ambassador Susan Rice acknowledged this but added: "Unfortunately, this draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides and could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations." Apparently most of the rest of the world -- from close U.S. allies like Britain, France, and Germany to leading Arab nations -- disagrees.
The veto would have been a bad idea no matter when it happened. But right now it's a particularly glaring policy misstep. Much of the protests across the Middle East have been relatively free of anti-U.S. and even anti-Israel sentiment. As the Obama administration tries to position itself as a friend to the increasingly empowered people of the region, it would do well to avoid looking isolated and unwilling to hold friendly countries accountable for ignoring human rights concerns.
This is not about taking sides between the country of Israel and the Palestinian cause. As Americans for Peace Now -- a pro-peace, pro-Israel, American Jewish organization -- said about the veto:
"What happened today is not just about an American veto of a resolution that is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy. The fact that the Palestinians went ahead and brought the resolution to a vote demonstrates the degree to which the Palestinians and the international community have lost faith in the peace process, and in U.S. leadership of that process.
"This should be a wake-up call to the administration. For the sake of Israel and for the sake of U.S. interests in the region and beyond, President Obama must take dramatic action to restore faith in the peace process ... It is not too late for the Obama administration to show real leadership, to push both sides to negotiate peace in earnest, to show the parties that intransigence comes at a price."
Predictably, the Palestinian reaction to the veto has been strong. To protest the veto, Palestinian leaders are planning a "day of rage" (as many of the recent protests against authoritarian regimes have been called). Sadly, this time it's the U.S. that is the target of the rage.
It didn't have to be this way. During this time when the winds of change are blowing the U.S. should be positioning itself, and truly leading, as a champion of human rights. It's time for U.S. leaders to understand that we are a stronger, safer country when our foreign policy is based on clear and consistent values. The world is a complex and sometimes dangerous place. But recent history teaches that over-clever and unprincipled geopolitical strategy shouldn't drive U.S. foreign policy. That's true whether we're dealing with Egypt, Israel or any other country.
In fact, knowing how isolated they would be by the veto, the Obama administration had been looking for a way to take a more pro-human rights approach. The administration reportedly tried for a compromise resolution. Apparently that fell through. Given the stakes for the U.S., and the clear human rights concerns, the administration should have tried harder.