2016 continues to baffle and astound us. On December 23, the United States abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution condemning the construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that allowed the resolution to pass. This was the first time in eight years the Obama administration did not vote to protect Israeli interests at the UN – though previous administrations have on several occasions abstained from or supported UN resolutions against Israel’s illegal actions.
Then, on December 28, Secretary of State, John Kerry, made an impassioned speech, lasting more than an hour, condemning Israel’s settlement policy and continued occupation of Palestinian land with a frustration and anger rarely, if ever, aimed at one of the United States’ closest allies and recipient of its largest foreign aid package.
Support for Israel over the past eight years has been unconditional, and despite his tumultuous relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Obama has arguably been one of the most pro-Israel U.S. presidents ever. So when Obama decides, less than a month before leaving office, to abstain from a UN resolution that criticizes Israel and allow his secretary of state to speak out, so clearly, against Israeli intransigence, Israel understandably loses its mind.
Soon after the resolution’s passage, the Israeli prime minister called the measure “hostile and unbalanced,” claiming the United States had helped draft the resolution and that evidence of this would be provided to President-Elect Donald Trump. The Israeli PM also suspended ties with nations that voted in favor of the resolution, further isolating Israel on the international stage.
For his part, Trump capitalized on the moment and engaged in a public lovefest with Netanyahu on Twitter. Netanyahu responded by roping in Trump’s children, Ivanka and Donald Jr. – a reminder of the nepotism now ingrained in the highest office in American politics.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) December 28, 2016
And while it has all been very entertaining to watch, the question remains, why now? Why, with mere weeks left in his administration, did Obama decide to publicly condemn Israel? Why, after pledging $38 billion to the country just a few months ago, did the administration make this controversial gesture?
Writing in Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf praised Obama’s final act on Israel/Palestine:
Indeed, if the Obama team should be subjected to any criticism at all for its stance on the settlements, it is not, as the Israelis have subsequently hissed, that the administration may have helped orchestrate the vote — a position refuted by Kerry. Rather, it is that it did not take a stronger position on this issue sooner. We are almost at the end of President Barack Obama’s time in office. The United States should not have tolerated Israel’s settlement policy for one single day. It should have fought against it, even as it was continuing to fund Israeli arms purchases at record levels and work for a peace deal without the notable cooperation of the Israelis (or, to be fair, the Palestinians).
Others have, however, questioned the value of the Security Council resolution so late in the game. As Muftah editor Alexander Schinis wrote, “The resolution does not contain any measures to encourage the Israeli government to stop or even slow its settlement building, and is the equivalent of a sternly-worded letter.” Executive Director of CAIR-Chicago Ahmed Rehab wrote on Facebook that Obama’s decision to allow the resolution through was little more than an act of political cowardice:
The fact that our elected officials only dare to speak the truth in their dying, waning hours of their lame duck tenures, tells you that they knew the truth all along but that they also knew there would be a political price to pay for saying it. It also tells you that free speech and expression is not a reality within our political system and it tells you that lobbyists with their funding and PR powers have the upper hand – for any given issue.
In Mondoweiss, civil rights lawyer Robert Herbst wrote about the fear and intimidation that prevented an honest appraisal of the Israel/Palestine issue from coming sooner:
The most disturbing thing about the landmark speech that Secretary of State John Kerry just delivered is that the American political system is so dysfunctional that the truth could be spoken only after – not before – a national election, in the short period between the end of one Administration and the beginning of another…
These hard truths remained untold for eight years because of fear: fear by President Obama and the Administration that the Israeli lobby, big American Jewish donors, and the American Jewish community was not ready to hear them; fear that speaking the truth would endanger Obama’s re-election prospects, and then Hillary Clinton’s. As a result of such fear, candor could be heard only very late – when the Two State Solution (“2SS”) is already in the grave, and when the incoming Administration is apparently resolved not to hear the lessons Kerry took pains to articulate.
Perhaps Obama was trying to save face – “an attempt to get out ahead of the blame game in the history books,” as Yousef Munayyer writes in The Nation – after creating a reality that has given Israel all the tools and resources it needs to continue its occupation and laid the groundwork for even more staunch pro-Israel posturing under Trump. AJ+ Producer Sana Saeed wrote that the Obama administration is now “scrambling” at the eleventh hour, trying to “dull the corners of how it’ll be remembered on the issue.”
Mondoweiss’s editor, Philip Weiss, weighed in with his own thoughts on the issue, in an article entitled “Why Obama Waited 8 Years to Take On Netanyahu.” As Weiss wrote, the tragedy of Kerry’s speech – in which he boldly and firmly spoke of Palestinian rights, of Israel’s unjust policies and impediments to peace, in which he stated that, in a one state reality, Israel could be either Jewish or democratic, but not both – was that these truths were known to the Obama administration eight years ago. Obama could only do something about them after being freed from the political pressures of the presidency. And while this move comes frustratingly late in the game, Weiss believes that there are still reasons to appreciate this moment:
We are having the most open discussion about the settlements and the occupation and Israeli extremism that we have ever had in this country. The great Hanan Ashrawi was on CNN this morning explaining that Palestinians have a right to resist military occupation. Noura Erakat was on MSNBC twice yesterday unapologetically using the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s regime in the West Bank and East Jerusalem (ten years after Jimmy Carter used the word and was politically destroyed with the complicity of the Democratic establishment). Kerry himself used the word Nakba yesterday, it appears the first time a State Department official has done so, and that breaks a seal. Today the New York Times’s Peter Baker quotes Ali Abunimah. Another breakthrough. Jeremy Ben-Ami says that 90 percent of Americans don’t know the facts Kerry was telling them. Now they’re learning. Chris Hayes is leading the way here by all-but-stating the two state solution is dead.
By their actions, Obama/Kerry have also exposed the haywire extremism of Netanyahu and the Israeli political leadership. Netanyahu is out of control, talking about his hidden proof that the Americans initiated the UN resolution, and it’s a “declaration of war.” He is only alienating world opinion more with everything he says. Last night the open battle between the two administrations was the top story on the networks. It is sure to change Israeli politics.