Before the Flood
Why Did Obama Let the UN Criticize Israel? Because It Was the Last Chance to Act Sane
The big winners in the Trump administration will be Israel’s far right and the boycott/divestment/sanctions movement. The UN vote is the last gasp of consensus reality.
Have you been to Ramat Shlomo? I have.
Depending on your politics, Ramat Shlomo is either a dull, ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in the north of Jerusalem, the eternal, undivided capital of Israel; or a settlement in Occupied Palestine, deemed illegal this week by a 14-0 vote of the United Nations Security Council (which had said the same thing in 1980) with a surprise U.S. abstention, rather than veto.
The truth about places like Ramat Shlomo—and the now-dashed political consensus about them—is somewhere in between these poles. But while the reality of the Middle East is complex and nuanced, the rhetoric and politics around it are anything but. The new winners of this game are those who paint in broad, Manichean strokes: the boycott/divestment/sanctions (BDS) movement and their dance partners on the Jewish nationalist right. The biggest losers are everyone else.
Ramat Shlomo is a microcosm of the whole mess.
Legally, Israel did formally annex the eastern parts of Jerusalem after conquering them in the 1967 War, and that war was a pre-emptive strike against Arab neighbors who were openly promising Israel’s destruction and amassing the forces to carry it out. However, the UN doesn’t recognize pre-emptive strikes as defensive; therefore, Israel started the Six-Day War; therefore, east(ern) Jerusalem is occupied territory; therefore, Ramat Shlomo—together with all Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, even in most of the Old City—violates international law.
Geographically, Ramat Shlomo is part-settlement, part-neighborhood. Several miles north of Jerusalem proper, it abuts the Palestinian neighborhood and refugee camp of Shuafat, and is across a deep valley from what were formerly the northernmost suburbs of the city. Now, it’s part of a chain of settlements/neighborhoods—Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaakov—that stretches most of the way to Ramallah. The local buses go there, the light rail goes nearby, but it’s nowhere near the Old City, or the Knesset, or anything recognizable as Jerusalem.
So, somewhere in between.
That legal and geographical middle ground used to be where international political consensus also resided. Israel proper is legitimate, but colonizing the West Bank is not. Some settlements, like Ramat Shlomo, will be incorporated into Israel as part of a final status agreement, while some more remote ones will not. There must be two states for two peoples, with some agreement on compensation for refugees, and some suburb of Jerusalem made the Palestinian capital. Both Palestinians and Israelis have blown several chances for peace, with cowardly leaders on both sides caving into nationalist pressures. Nobel Prizes notwithstanding, there are no Nelson Mandelas, or even F.W. DeKlerks, left at this negotiating table.
That center—where the two-state solution is the only path forward and where positions flow from reason, rather than ideology and military might—is soon to disintegrate.
The Obama administration’s decision not to veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334 last week must be seen in the context of the Trump election and the appointment of one the leaders of the settlement project, David Friedman, as ambassador to Israel.
It is clear that the next four years will see a very different American policy in the region: no longer “honest broker,” but staunch advocate for Israel’s right-wing fringe, a collection of extremist settlers underwritten by American Jewish and Christian Zionist donors. So, as Obama goes out the door, he chooses to step back and let the Security Council vote 14-0 to censure the same settlement project that Friedman (and Jared Kushner) has helped underwrite.
The two-state solution, in other words, has now shifted from the centrist consensus to the liberal opposition. And the opposition starts now—opposing any actions that make it less likely, and recording, for at least one moment, the former consensus of the world’s leaders that building settlements is one of those actions.
But this week’s vote is the last gasp of that consensus. And with it gone, centrist organizations like J Street, and two-stater, “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Jewish pundits like Peter Beinart, Jeffrey Goldberg, and myself, have no ground left to stand on. At least not in the short term.
J Street’s theory of change was that if the U.S. government wouldn’t write Israel a blank check, then Israel’s leaders would have at least some greater incentive to negotiate the deal that we all know is necessary for justice and peace. But now, with an incoming administration further to the extremist right than any in American history, that strategy hasn’t got a prayer. We’re done—for four years, anyway.
So what’s left? For Americans who care about this issue, the hard right and the hard left.
On the right, the self-appointed leaders of the Jewish establishment are apoplectic. You’d think that the neo-Nazis were Obama’s supporters rather than Trump’s.
To this establishment, the non-veto proves Obama hated Israel all along. You can almost hear them saying: We told you so!
Never mind the $38 billion, 10-year aid package that the administration just put together, the largest in American-Israeli history. Never mind that the Reagan administration abstained from far more UN resolutions critical of Israel (seven) than Obama (one). Never mind that, in fact, the settlements threaten Israel’s long-term viability, since they pave the road to apartheid, in which a minority rules over a second-class majority. (They are also phenomenally expensive.) Never mind the unprecedented insults that Israeli leaders have hurled at President Obama, treating him like a mere occupant of the White House, rather than the president of the United States.
Never mind all that, the right says. Obama is anti-Israel. And if you support him, you must be anti-Semitic.
On the left, the coming administration could leave BDS—the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel—as perhaps the only realistic strategy to oppose settlements and the occupation in general. If liberal Zionists have no one in the administration who will listen to them, then many will surely turn to BDS, which at least offers some coherent pathway to a Palestinian state. (Or a binational one, as many of the movement’s leaders actually want.) That’s more than any liberal Zionist policy of engagement can reasonably promise. Engage with whom, exactly?
In a sense, American Jews are like those centrist voters in the 2016 election who were caught between two options they don’t like. (“Profoundly uncomfortable” is how the left-leaning former head of the Union Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, put it.) They can sign on to the nationalism, Orthodox religious dominance, and occasional abject racism of the right. Or they can put up with the inflammatory rhetoric, naivete, and occasional abject anti-Semitism of the BDS-led left. The idea of boycotting Israel may be nausea-inducing. But at least the BDS camp offers some hope for a two-state solution, and justice for 6.3 million Palestinians.
Moreover, BDS may be rapidly becoming the default political position of many of the young, Bernie Left. Ironically, it is not the position of one of that faction’s leaders, Rep. Keith Ellison, who has said some anti-Israel things over the years but has a very strong pro-Israel voting record (and opposition to BDS). But it is temperamentally where the Bernie wing of the Democratic Party resides. Despite the often hysterical efforts of right-wing billionaires to keep their children away from it, BDS isn’t totally treyf anymore.
Then again, the Bernie wing is not the only wing. The Democrats still have security hawks, who find BDS too oppositional, BDS’s leaders too unreliable, and the idea of sanctioning Israel too extreme. And Democrats still command the votes of 80 percent of American Jews, some of whom will indeed vote Republican if Israel becomes a partisan issue or the BDS crowd becomes too prominent a liberal trope.
Likewise, Republicans have their cooler heads as well, though one wonders how many times Defense Secretary nominee James “Mad Dog” Mattis is supposed to be the only grownup in the room. If he even gets confirmed, that is—Mattis, after all, said that Israeli policies are often inimical to American ones, and that settlements are leading Israel to “apartheid.”
Could the Obama team have forestalled this schism by vetoing the UNSC resolution as usual? No. It was coming anyway, with the election of Trump/Kushner/Friedman. And, if nothing else, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Trump-like pathetic tantrum—personal invective against Obama, ridiculous counteractions against every country who voted for the resolution, summoning ambassadors to appear on Christmas—confirms what progressives have said about him for years: that he was never going to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, that he is a weak leader who rules (like Trump) on the basis of demagoguery and grandstanding. Great. We told you so.
Ironically, the vanished centrist consensus—two states, security and justice concerns accommodated—is still what a majority of Israeli voters choose every time they go to the polls, and is the position of the vast majority of Israel’s defense and intelligence establishments. But what do they know, compared to angry American Jews in Riverdale, zealous Christian Zionists in Topeka, and David Friedman, an ideologue with no diplomatic or political expertise? In the new normal, experts are always wrong.
Editor’s Note: Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism. An earlier version of this report said he was the head of the Reform Movement.