Pro-Israel organizations and friends of Israel are falling all over themselves to thank the Obama Administration for casting its first veto in the UN Security Council Friday, preventing the Security Council from pronouncing Israeli “settlements” “illegal.” In fact, it was the least they could do, and they did it with reluctance and more than a little bit of dissembling.
Houses for Jews east of the 1949 Armistice Line are not illegal for many international reasons including: an armistice line is not a border; the land was not sovereign – British Mandatory authority giving way directly to illegal occupation by Jordan from 1949-67 after an offensive war; Israel acquired it in a defensive war, giving it better legal title than Jordan. One might say many things about Israel’s holding of and handling of the territory acquired in its own defense, but illegal occupation and illegal building are not among them.
And the administration didn’t use the word, exactly. After a week of offering other unpleasant language about Israel and houses in an effort to avoid a showdown, the President is said to have spent nearly an hour pleading with Palestinian dictator Abu Mazen (his legal term ended in 2008) to withdraw his petition to the Security Council. Abu Mazen apparently declined. Having exhausted the other options, President Obama directed UN Ambassador Susan Rice to do the honorable thing – veto the resolution after the other 14 members of the Security Council voted in favor of it.
But in what was supposed to be a slick moment on ABC-TV, Secretary of State Clinton said, “I think it is absolutely clear to say, number one, that it’s been American policy for many years that settlements were illegitimate and it is the continuing goal and highest priority of the Obama administration to keep working toward a two-state solution with both Israelis and Palestinians.”
“Illegitimate” not “illegal.” See the difference?
The administration can turn to the Israelis and say, “See, we didn’t call them ‘illegal’ and we vetoed the resolution.” They can also turn to the Palestinians and say, “Yes, we vetoed the resolution, but we said we don’t like Israelis building ‘settlements’ and we never uttered a word of criticism of you for defying the President and making him look weak – we certainly bashed Netanyahu publicly and at great length when we didn’t like what he did. Any anyhow, most people didn’t notice the difference between ‘illegitimate’ and ‘illegal,’ so don’t make a big fuss over this and we won’t either.”
What the administration should have said was, “No matter how much we seek an independent Palestinian state and no matter how irritated we are with Israel on the subject, those houses built on that land under these circumstances are not illegal. We can’t fudge the issue and we won’t. Abu Mazen was entirely wrong to involve the Security Council in a mistaken application of international law, and the Security Council was wrong to entertain his petition.
“Furthermore, the only way to bring a Palestinian state into being – if at all – is through direct negotiation with Israel, which holds the land legitimately through a war of self-defense against Jordan, which had been an illegal occupier for the preceding 19 years. The Palestinian Arab state that should have been established in 1948 didn’t happen because the extant Arab states were unwilling to countenance the establishment of the corresponding Jewish state, Israel, in part of the place the Jewish people were the last sovereign rulers.
“Those states and the Palestinian leadership have operated since then as if the international community’s acceptance of the independence of Israel was a mistake. It was not. The mistake was the Arab states and the Palestinians using physical, political and psychological attacks against Israel since 1948 in an effort to destroy it. If we’re now going to fulfill the intent of the British Mandate for a Palestinian Arab and a Palestinian Jewish state – 63 years late – it can only happen if the Arab states and the Palestinians understand that.
“If they don’t, it won’t happen. Israel won’t let it happen, and the United States won’t let it happen to Israel.”
But that’s only if they want to be forthright and honorable. The road they took was a cop out – just on the inside of legal, but offering Israel no comfort against its enemies and giving the Palestinians no reason to behave differently in the future.
Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director for Security Policy for The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).