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Groups want stronger U.S. defense of Israel; Obama not obliging

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration appears to be rebuffing calls from some Jewish groups for the United States to be more assertive and public in defending Israel regarding the flotilla incident.

The bluntest appeal for a more pronounced pro-Israel posture came from Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, who is in Israel meeting with the Israeli leadership. (See The biased rush to judgment in the flotilla affair).

“The U.S. should reiterate its support and understanding for Israel, that as a sovereign and democratic nation it has the right to act on behalf of its national security and express its confidence that Israel can conduct its own investigation into the matter without the intrusion of international bodies,” Foxman told JTA.

Israeli commandoes seizing control of the main boat in a Gaza aid flotilla clashed Monday before dawn with some of its passengers, and killed nine, among them at least four Turkish nationals. Six Israeli soldiers were wounded in the melee. Commandoes seized control of five smaller boats without incident.

The United States has beaten back the sharpest condemnations. It watered down a U.N. Security Council statement so that it condemned the “acts” that led to the deaths, making ambiguous whether the Israelis or the passengers escalated the conflict into violence.

On Wednesday, it joined the Netherlands in registering two lonely votes against a U.N. Human Rights Council resolution condemning Israel. It has also in its statements supporting an inquiry into the matter said that Israel should conduct it, implicitly rebuffing demands elsewhere for an international inquiry.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee acknowledged the Obama administration’s bulwark against the tougher demands for Israel’s isolation, but made clear it wanted more.

“It would have been preferable if the U.N. and Obama administration had blocked any action implying criticism of Israel for defending itself,” AIPAC said in a memo. “Nonetheless, intervention by the United States prevented passage of a Security Council resolution condemning Israel. The administration continues to express its confidence in Israel’s ability to conduct its own investigation of the incident despite calls for an international inquiry.”

AIPAC also insisted that “the United States must now maintain its longstanding position not to allow the Security Council and other U.N. organs such as the U.N. Human Rights Council to exploit unfortunate incidents by passing biased, anti-Israel resolutions that obscure the truth and accomplish nothing.”

Were AIPAC certain that the United States was committed to blocking such resolutions further down the line, it would likely not have made the recommendation.

No such certainty appears in the offing: Statements from Obama administration officials suggest that they are holding judgment until the facts become clearer, and that meanwhile, the White House wants to see the blockade that triggered the aid flotilla eased.

A White House statement describing Obama’s call with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan said the U.S. president “affirmed the United States position in support of a credible, impartial, and transparent investigation of the facts surrounding this tragedy. The president affirmed the importance of finding better ways to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza without undermining Israel’s security.”

Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip partly to keep the Hamas terrorist organization, which controls the strip, from receiving arms (an effort Hamas has junked by running weapons through tunnels into Egypt); but another aim was to weaken Hamas politically among Palestinians.

Top White House officials met for hours on Tuesday with Uzi Arad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top security adviser, and Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, and made clear to them that the United States sees the blockade as unsustainable.

Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesman, said that the administration was in wait and see mode. “The Security Council, the statement that I read, calls for an investigation that is prompt, impartial, credible, and transparent, conforming to international standards of exactly what happened,” he said after several prompts at Tuesday’s briefing. “And we’re obviously supportive of that.”

Foxman told JTA that considerations of an investigation and of the wisdom of using commandoes to carry out a police action — keeping the flotilla from docking in Gaza — were beside the point.

“Was there a better way to do this? That’s all interesting, but that’s not what this is about,” he said. “There is bloodshed all over the world, there are people killing people all over the world in deliberate hatred and nobody is calling for investigations. At the very least the United States should stand with Israel.”

Such statements of solidarity have been pouring out of Congress, from Republicans and Democrats. GOP figures are already firing at Obama for not pronouncing himself more firmly on Israel’s side.

“Would the U.S. in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable phrase, ‘join the jackals?’” at the United Nations, Elliott Abrams wrote on the Weekly Standard’s Website, referring to the steadfastly pro-Israel Reagan-era ambassador to the United Nations.

“This week the Obama administration answered the question: Yes we would, and Israel would stand alone,” continued Abrams, who, as deputy national security adviser, helped lead the second Bush administration’s failed efforts to arrive at a peace agreement. “It is simple to block the kind of attack issued as a ‘President’s Statement’ on behalf of the Council, for such a statement requires unanimity. The United States can just say ‘No,’ and make it clear that orders have come from the White House and will not be changed.”

Hadar Susskind, the policy and strategy director for J Street, which has called for an independent Israeli inquiry into the incident, said such a posture would be counterproductive.

“It’s the same question, ‘How can you make the Israelis the bad guys or say that the people on the ship were good guys?’” he said. “It’s not a comic book, they were not good guys, they attacked Israeli soldiers with a pipe and tried to killed them — but that doesn’t mean the Israeli government made good decisions. It’s not our role to decide each time the good guys and bad guys.”

JTA

 
 

Pressing Israel in U.N. remains a U.S. taboo, veto on settlements resolution shows

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Construction workers labor at a construction site in the Har Homa neighborhood, south of Jerusalem, a day after the United States vetoed a U.N. Security Council draft resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction as illegal. Gili Yaari/Flash 90/JTA

NEW YORK – In the run-up to last week’s U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal, the Obama administration faced a dilemma.

The administration views Jewish settlements in the West Bank as illegitimate, and has made few bones about saying so, but it also rejects the notion that the place to settle the matter is the United Nations, with its long tradition of anti-Israel resolutions.

Put in a seemingly awkward position, the administration had to decide whether to veto a resolution whose substance it essentially agreed with at a time when the Arab street is looking for signs of the Obama administration’s proclivities on Middle Eastern issues, or discard America’s usual practice of vetoing one-sided U.N. resolutions on Israel and anger many Israel supporters.

While some left-wing Jewish groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now urged the president to shun the veto, adding to the pressure on Israel, the reaction from Capitol Hill showed that it wasn’t a stance endorsed by the left or right wing in Congress.

Republicans and Democrats both said that using the United Nations to pressure Israel was out of bounds. Leading members of both parties -- including Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip -- urged the president last week to veto “any U.N. Security Council resolution that criticizes Israel regarding final status issues.”

When the resolution finally came to a vote at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 18, the administration’s decision to exercise its veto earned praise from fellow Democrats.

“I praise the Obama administration’s veto, and call on the U.S. to reject any future resolutions at the U.N. that unfairly target Israel, and instead push the Palestinians back to negotiations where they belong,” said Rep. Shelly Berkley (D-Nev.). “I hope the Arabs, having failed to force the issue at the U.N., will return to the negotiating table immediately and begin the real process of reaching a solution.”

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, B’nai B’rith International and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee all issued statements expressing appreciation for the veto.

“Exercising the veto is a painful decision, particularly for an administration with a deep and sincere commitment to multilateralism,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “That is why we salute President Obama and his team for their courage in vetoing this mischievous resolution, which would have caused irreparable damage to the future prospects of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Obama used the veto for the first time after pursuing a compromise proposal -- a nonbinding Security Council statement calling settlements a “serious obstacle to the peace process” -- that ultimately failed.

The United States has vetoed dozens of Security Council resolutions condemning Israel going back nearly four decades. Occasionally, however, the United States has withheld the veto on resolutions focused on criticizing Israel, abstaining instead. On May 19, 2004, for example, the George W. Bush administration abstained from a resolution expressing grave concern for Israel’s demolishing of Palestinian homes in Gaza and criticized Israel’s killing of a Palestinian civilian in the area of Rafah, Gaza.

This time, the Obama administration’s willingness to countenance a compromise resolution, and its refusal to say in advance whether it would veto the resolution, suggested to many that its reliability with the veto was in question.

Obama has put the issue of settlements squarely in his sights as part of his Middle East peace push, and he has been generally warm toward J Street, dispatching top Middle East adviser Dennis Ross to address the group’s upcoming conference even as Israeli officials have shunned it.

While not fundamentally altering U.S. policy, which under several presidents officially has opposed settlement expansion, Obama has been far more vocal on the subject. All of which prompted reactions from Israel’s allies on Capitol Hill and beyond, several of whom reacted strongly to reports that the administration was pursuing a compromise.

Speaking in the council chamber on the day of the vote, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, rejected the resolution as unhelpful to restarting negotiations between the parties. But she was withering about the administration’s view of settlement activity.

“Our opposition to the resolution before this council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity,” Rice said. “On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.

“For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties and threatens the prospects for peace.”

Americans for Peace Now said Obama’s use of the veto represented a missed chance to exercise leadership that could yield a peace agre

JTA Wire Service

 
 

A primer on Palestinian statehood

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Israeli soldiers scuffle with Palestinians during a demonstration near the west bank village of Beit Omar on Aug. 13. Najeh Hashlamoun/Flash 90

The Palestinian Authority in mid-September is expected to ask the U.N. Security Council to formally recognize it as a state.

Some analysts warn that such a request will set off a new paroxysm of violence in the west bank and Gaza, and perhaps even on Israel’s streets.

Here is a guide to what might happen, and what it might mean.

Q. What do the Palestinians want the United Nations to recognize?

A. The Palestinians want recognition of a “State of Palestine” in all of the west bank, Gaza, and eastern Jerusalem. The west bank is part of the area originally designated for a “Palestinian Arab” state in the Nov. 29, 1947, U.N. partition resolution. It was seized by Jordan during Israel’s War of Independence and held by it until it was captured by Israel in the June 1967 Six-Day War. Today, it includes lands on which Jewish settlements now sit. The two halves of Jerusalem were effectively annexed by Israel, but the international community views it as occupied territory. (Jerusalem, under the 1947 resolution, was to be an international city, belonging to no individual state.) In total, more than 600,000 Jews reside in eastern Jerusalem and the west bank.

Q. What’s the legal process for becoming a state?

A. The U.N. Security Council’s approval is required to become a U.N. member state. The United States, which is one of the 15-member council’s five permanent, veto-wielding members, has promised to veto a Palestinian statehood resolution.

Q. Is there a way for the Palestinians to overcome a U.S. veto?

A. The Palestinians still could seek statehood recognition at the U.N. General Assembly. While a General Assembly vote in favor of Palestinian statehood would not carry the force of law, the passage of such a resolution would be highly symbolic and represent a significant public relations defeat for Israel.

Q. Is there any benefit short of full statehood recognition that the Palestinians can obtain at the United Nations?

A. Yes. The Palestinians already have non-member permanent observer status at the United Nations, which they obtained in 1974.

This time, the General Assembly could vote to recognize “Palestine” as a non-member U.N. state, which would put Palestinian U.N. membership on par with that of the Vatican. While being a non-member state would not give the Palestinians much more than they have now as a non-state observer, it would be another symbolic victory.

If the Palestinians can get a two-thirds majority in support of statehood in the General Assembly, they also could put forward a so-called Uniting for Peace resolution. This nonbinding, advisory resolution would provide legal cover to nations wanting to treat Palestine as a state – for example, allowing sanctions and lawsuits against Israel to go forward. The Uniting for Peace option was first used to circumvent a Soviet veto in the Security Council against action during the Korean War, and it was employed during the 1980s to protect countries that sanctioned apartheid South Africa from being sued under international trade laws.

Q. Why are the Palestinians seeking statehood recognition from the United Nations rather than negotiating directly with Israel?

A. The Palestinian leadership has eschewed renewed peace talks with Israel, either because Abbas believes that talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not produce desired results, or because Abbas believes he has more to gain by going to the international arena – or both.

Abbas essentially is gambling that the U.N. move will give him more leverage vis-à-vis Israel, making it more difficult for the Israelis to stick to their current negotiating positions and establishing the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations.

[Editor’s note: The question of whether to set the pre-1967 lines as the basis for negotiations is semantic, not substantive. In fact, the lines are the starting point for all sides in the peace talks. Israel wants to see the lines redrawn to better accommodate its security needs. This would include retaining control over established west bank settlements. The Palestinians want the lines to remain what they were before the start of the Six-Day War.]

Q. What tools does Israel have to respond to the Palestinian bid?

A. Israel’s strategy now is trying to persuade as many nations as possible – as well as the Palestinians – that a U.N. vote favoring Palestinian statehood would set back the peace track. The argument is that it would make it less likely that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would succeed, forcing Israel to dig in its heels.

Beyond that, Israeli experts have warned, Israel may consider the unilateral Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition an abrogation of the Oslo Accords, which stipulated that the framework for resolution of the conflict would be negotiations between the two parties. If the Oslo Accords, which provides the basis for the limited autonomy the Palestinians currently have in the west bank, are nullified, Israel may re-occupy portions of the west bank from which its forces have withdrawn, end security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in tax money it collects on behalf of the PA.

Q. What are some of the other possible negative consequences for the Palestinians of statehood recognition?

A. The U.S. Congress has threatened to ban assistance to the Palestinian Authority if it pursues recognition of statehood at the United Nations. That could cost the Palestinians as much as $500 million annually, potentially crippling the Palestinian government.

Q. What happens on the day after the U.N. vote?

A. This is not clear. The Palestinian leadership does not seem to have a plan. The Palestinian public is expected to stage mass demonstrations. Israel is preparing for a host of worst-case scenarios, including violence.

If the United Nations does endorse Palestinian statehood in some form, it will be seen as a public relations victory for the Palestinians. In the absence of progress on the ground, however, a U.N. vote could set off popular Palestinian protests against Israel that could escalate into another Palestinian intifada.

It is possible that a favorable U.N. vote will send Palestinians marching on Israeli settlements and military positions much like Palestinians in Syria and Lebanon marched on Israel’s borders in mid-May.

It is also possible a vote on statehood would unleash a wave of violence in the Palestinian street not seen since the second intifada waned in 2004.

Such violence, however, could come at a high cost. The relative absence of Palestinian terrorism in recent years has enabled the Palestinians to rally considerable support to their cause, raise their GDP, and improve the quality of life in the west bank. All this could be lost.

That may leave the Palestinians and Israel back where they began: at a standstill. JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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