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President Obama speaking at the Ben-Gurion Airport in 2013. (Photo: The Israel Project/cc/flickr)

Obama's Support for International Law Draws Bipartisan Ire

Stephen Zunes

 by The Progressive

Here’s one way to look at it: The United States was the only country in the fifteen-member U.N. Security Council that did not support a resolution passed last week criticizing Israel for continuing to expand illegal settlements in the occupied territories.

On the other hand, the Obama administration refused to veto the resolution—for which it is now drawing fire from both Republicans and Democrats. This opposition has come despite the resolution also calling on both the Israeli and Palestinian governments to prevent violence against civilians, condemn and combat terrorism, refrain from incitement, and comply with their obligations under international law.

The clauses addressing Israeli colonization in the occupied territories simply reconfirmed the longstanding consensus that such settlements are illegitimate. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—to which both Israel and the United States are signatories—bars any occupying power from transferring “parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” The United Nations, through such measures as Security Council Resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471, has repeatedly recognized that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, constitute territories under foreign belligerent occupation and that Israel’s settlements policy is in violation of this critical international treaty.

A landmark 2004 decision by the International Court of Justice also confirmed these Palestinian-populated areas’ occupied status and the illegality of the settlements. In that same ruling, the World Court enjoined the United States and other signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention to “ensure compliance by Israel with international humanitarian law.”

Furthermore, the official State Department position, adopted in 1978 and never repealed, states that “the establishment of the civilian settlements in those territories is inconsistent with international law.”

But recent U.S. Presidents have been reluctant to acknowledge the illegality of these settlements. Instead, both Republican and Democratic administrations, recognizing that the settlements make establishing a viable contiguous Palestinian state impossible, have opposed expansion on the grounds that it is “an obstacle to peace.” “The U.S.-backed peace plans put forward by former CIA director George Tenet and the Mitchell Commission called for a freeze on Israeli settlement activities, as did the much-vaunted “Road Map for Peace,” which both the Bush and Obama administrations repeatedly stressed was necessary to resolve the conflict.

Still, the Obama administration’s decision to refrain from blocking the U.N. resolution is being lambasted as an act of appalling irresponsibility.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, insisting that the resolution was somehow designed to “isolate and demonize Israel,” declared that

“Our unified Republican government will work to reverse the damage done by this administration, and rebuild our alliance with Israel.”

Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, claimed Obama has sought “to abandon our ally Israel.” And Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, accused Obama of carrying out a “systemic agenda to weaken Israel and strengthen its enemies.”

President-elect Donald Trump has signaled his displeasure with the resolution, promising the Israelis that “things will be different” after January 20. Indeed, Trump’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and his pick for chief negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Jason Greenblatt, are both outspoken supporters of the Israeli settler movement.

Meanwhile, instead of backing up Obama, scores of Congressional Democrats have publicly sided with Trump in criticizing the Obama Administration.

Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, the incoming Senate Democratic leader, called it “extremely frustrating, disappointing, and confounding” for the United States to have not vetoed the resolution. Representative Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland, said he was “extremely disappointed by this action,” insisting it was “wrong and unjust” to criticize Israeli settlements and for “delegitimizing Jews’ ancient and historic connection to the land.”  

Other Democrats made similar statements. Representative Brad Sherman, Democrat of California, referred to it as “an unfortunate change in U.S. policy in support of Israel.” Representative Alcee Hastings, Democrat of Florida, called Obama’s action “reckless” and “completely unacceptable.”

These Democrats’ backing of Trump’s position over that of Obama is not simply a matter of giving into “pro-Israel” political pressure. Moderate pro-Israel groups like J Street andAmericansfor Peace Now joined a wide range of liberal groups in successfully lobbying the administration to not veto the resolution.

And it certainly does not reflect the views of a majority of Democrats. A recent poll shows that not only do a vast majority of Democrats believe that the United States should oppose Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, 60 percent believe the U.S. should support economic sanctions or tougher measures, which even the Obama administration has ruled out.  And more American Jews support the Obama administration’s recognition that Israeli settlements are bad for Israel that those who support them.

It appears, then, that the post-Obama Democratic Party will not only be willing to back Trump’s hardline positions against human rights and international law, they are also willing to ignore their constituents who support such principles. As a result, there will be little in the way of checks and balances to deter Trump from his dangerous foreign policy agenda.

© 2021 The Progressive
Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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