There’s not much that’s new or remarkable in that new resolution from the United Nations Security Council (text here) condemning Israel’s West Bank settlements as illegal. You might call that very fact remarkable — that the resolution is so unremarkable — given all the fuss the resolution has stirred up.
Surely with all that smoke there must be fire. But facts are facts: For the most part, the resolution simply restates positions the council adopted years ago.
In at least one important sense, though, the new resolution is unusual, perhaps unique. It is, as near as I can find, the first hostile Security Council resolution in which virtually every one of Israel’s major objections is a half-truth, distortion or demonstrably false.
Myth 1. Let’s start with the biggest objection: that the United States decided to abstain rather than veto the resolution, allowing it to pass 14-0. The Obama administration, it’s alleged, thus broke with the “longstanding U.S. practice demonstrated by successive administrations,” as the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC explained on its website, namely “to oppose one-sided United Nations Security Council resolutions.“
America, AIPAC reported, has vetoed 42 “one-sided resolutions related to Israel.” The website helpfully lists 10 specific vetoes out of the 42, going back to a 1973 Nixon administration vote.
The Orthodox Union called the administration’s failure to veto “an unprecedented and deeply disturbing break from the past.”
Fact: During the same 49-year period that successive administrations vetoed 42 anti-Israel resolutions, beginning right after the Six-Day War in 1967, those same administrations allowed passage of 71 resolutions that Israel objected to — 30 by abstaining, 41 by voting “yes.” Obama’s abstention brings the total to 72.
As we can see, the idea that the veto is the standard American response to hostile Security Council resolutions is fanciful at best. In fact, the vetoes are considerably outnumbered by the hostile resolutions allowed through.
(Note: Americans for Peace Now published a list last April of hostile resolutions allowed by U.S. administrations since 1967. It found a total of 77. I worked separately from a list of all 2,334 council resolutions ever, isolating the Israel-related resolutions and working from there. Our lists are remarkably similar; they differ mainly in our judgment calls on resolutions where we couldn’t find clear record of Israeli reaction and we “presumed” based on known Israeli policies at the time. Other than slight variations, the main deviations were the Reagan administration, to which Peace Now assigned 21 “allows” and I assigned 10; and the George W. Bush administration, to which Peace Now assigned six and I assigned 10.)
The champions of allowing anti-Israel resolutions, by my count, were Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon at 13 each, followed by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush at 10 each. Peace Now’s top scorers were Reagan with 21, Nixon with 15 and Jimmy Carter with 14.
The undisputed record for fewest anti-Israel resolutions allowed through is held by Barack Obama, whose total of hostile resolutions allowed was zero through seven years and 11 months of his eight years in office. His single abstention on December 23 brings his total to one, still by far the lowest of any president. (Well, Gerald Ford had two — in his 2.5 years in office.) The only “break from the past” going on here was the Obama administration’s decision to break from its unbroken record of supporting Israel, and to act instead like all the other administrations before it.
It might be argued that the reason for our strong memories of unbroken American support at the U.N. is simply that it’s been so long since we’ve had a president who wasn’t as consistently supportive as the current incumbent. To be precise, it’s been seven years and 11 months.
Myth 2. The resolution “is one-sided and erroneously lays the entirety of the blame for the present impasse in the peace process on Israeli settlements rather than Palestinian refusal to come to the table,” the umbrella Jewish Council for Public Affairs said in its statement.
The American Jewish Committee’s David Harris wrote in an op-ed that the Security Council members were “obsessively and relentlessly focusing only on Israeli actions.”
Fact: The resolution actually does the opposite. In contrast to the usual Israel-bashing we associate with the U.N., this new resolution simultaneously calls on Israel to stop building settlements and on the Palestinians “for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror.” It calls for “compliance with obligations under international law for the strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism, including through existing security coordination, and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism.”
It goes on to call, “on the basis of international law,” for “both parties” to “refrain from provocative actions, incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.” And it states, unusually for the U.N., that the purpose of ending incitement and seriously fighting and condemning terrorism is “creating the conditions necessary for promoting peace.”
Those two paragraphs don’t mention the Palestinians by name. Still, it’s crystal clear who is being addressed, despite the mention of “both parties.” Terrorism and incitement are accusations commonly directed at the Palestinians, just as settlements are commonly understood as referring to a particular Israeli activity. It’s clear that these paragraphs are included — under threat of an American veto threat if they weren’t, according to several accounts — in order to balance the resolution. It’s also clear that, as hard as the Arab side had to swallow to accept the lumping of terrorism and incitement alongside settlements, naming the Palestinians directly was a step too far. The final wording is a compromise — America and Israel got the balancing of “illegal” actions by both Israel and the Palestinians, and the Arab group got to pretend they didn’t.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that in the Egyptian draft resolution, submitted to the council on the Palestinians’ behalf for a vote on December 22, there’s a direct reference to the obligation of “the Palestinian Authority Security Forces to maintain effective operations aimed at confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantling terrorist capabilities, including the confiscation of illegal weapons.” But after Egypt withdraw its draft under pressure from Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump, the new version adopted the next day eliminated any direct mention of the Palestinian Authority and its obligations.
This is what compromise looks like: For the first time the U.N. puts terrorism and incitement in the same basket as settlements, both violations of international law, both impediments to peace. Note: Settlements are “a major obstacle” to peace while ending incitement and restoring calm are “necessary for promoting” peace. Calling something an “obstacle to peace” is essentially the same thing as say it’s “necessary” to end it “for promoting peace.” The difference is that one is direct, the other indirect and weaseling.
It falls short of fully balanced and fair. But it’s miles away from “one-sided.”
Myth 3. The resolution distorts history by treating Jerusalem as “occupied territory” when it’s been central to Jewish faith and identity for millennia. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put the widely held view succinctly in remarks at the Western Wall, where he’d gone to light Hanukkah candles on Sunday evening, December 25, the festival’s second night:
“In light of the U.N. decision I thought there was no better place to light the Hanukkah candle than right here, the Western Wall,” Netanyahu said. “According to the U.N. decision, the Maccabees did not liberate Jerusalem, they conquered Palestinian territory.”
On the contrary, Netanyahu declared, “the Western Wall is not occupied, the Jewish Quarter [of the Old City of Jerusalem] is not occupied, and the other places are not occupied either. Therefore, we do not and cannot accept this resolution.”
As American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris put it in an op-ed, “no Israeli government will ever acknowledge the absurdity of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Western Wall, containing Judaism’s holiest sites, being depicted as ‘occupied Palestinian territory.’”
Fact: Determining ownership or sovereignty over a disputed stretch of land is a legal, political and diplomatic question. Nations have learned the painful lesson over the past 500 years or so that trying to resolve international disagreements by asserting the superiority of one religious claim over another is a recipe for unspeakable horror. There are some parts of the world where folks still haven’t quite internalized the lesson, and the results resonate painfully around the globe.
In late June 1967, three weeks after capturing the eastern sector of Jerusalem from the Jordanian army, Israel took the unilateral step of unifying the eastern sector with the western, Israeli sector. The U.N. General Assembly voted five days later, on July 4, to declare the Israeli action “invalid.” General Assembly resolutions aren’t legally binding, but the Security Council’s are. The council voted 10 months later, on May 21, 1968, to ratify the assembly vote by declaring Israel’s unification “invalid.” The United States abstained, as it had in the initial Gneral Assembly measure.
Since then, every Security Council statement about the status of the occupied territories has included the words “including Jerusalem.” In July 1979 the council voted to call on Israel to halt construction of settlements in the territories, “including Jerusalem.” The United States abstained. Eight months later, in March 1980, the council voted again to “strongly deplore” Israel’s continued settlement construction. This time the United States joined the majority, making it unanimous.
If there is a subtle change over time in the tone of Security Council resolutions on Jerusalem, it’s the addition of the word “East,” as in “East Jerusalem.” That’s meant to clarify that the world body isn’t quibbling with Israel over the legitimacy of its rule in West Jerusalem — merely that East Jerusalem was captured in 1967 and is part of the package that the rest of the world refers to as the “occupied territories.” Israel has been trying to convince the rest of the world otherwise for nearly 50 years, and it hasn’t made a single sale.
Here’s what the Security Council said about Jerusalem and the settlements in its latest resolution:
“The establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution.”
Myth 4. The Security Council wants to force Israel out of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, banish Israelis from the Western Wall and render homeless the 600,000 Israelis living in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Fact: In Paragraph 3 of the new resolution, the council:
“Underlines that it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations.”
In other words, the council will recognize changes to the 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem, if they’re agreed in negotiations. As a reminder, negotiators in the past have agreed that in a final settlement, Israel can keep the major settlement blocs along the Green Line and the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, in return for an equivalent amount of land to be swapped over from the Israeli side to the Palestinian side.
That’s not to say that the U.N., the Palestinians or any other official body outside Israel considers those dwellings to be legal — only that a trade can be made in the context of an agreement. But only as part of an agreement. Until then, as the diplomats say, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.
Continuing to build in those consensus areas because they’re likely to remain Israeli after a deal is signed is sort of like agreeing in principle to buy a house, then moving your furniture before you’ve gone to contract and you’re still haggling over the price. Buying somebody else’s property is generally considered legal. Moving into somebody else’s property usually isn’t. You can argue otherwise, but it does no good unless somebody else agrees with you.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).