Middle East

US raises prospect of Israel UN isolation

The United Nations building is reflected in a puddle in the Manhattan borough of New York Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US has protected Israel's interests at the UN

Is Israel about to lose its American firewall at the United Nations in New York, or will it continue to be so flameproof?

A year ago, these questions would have been near unthinkable.

Protecting Israel from critical resolutions at the Security Council has long been a central pillar of US Middle East policy.

But so rapid has been the deterioration of relations between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government that America's protective shield is now up for discussion at the White House, as part of a broader review of US relations with Israel.

Rarely have the grievances between two such close allies been given such a public airing, or chronicled in such vivid and profane detail.

Obama and his aides have made no secret of their anger at Benjamin Netanyahu for accepting an invitation from the Republican leadership to address a joint session of Congress in the midst of his re-election campaign, and then using that pulpit to denounce the potential nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran.

Netanyahu's voiced opposition to Palestinian statehood in the final days of the Israel election campaign injected more poison into relations.

Payback time

The White House policy review feels like payback.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Netanyahu's visit to the US was not welcomed by President Obama

Even though the Israeli prime minister has since tried to backtrack on the question of statehood, the Obama administration is pressing ahead.

"Netanyahu, in the election run-up, stated that a Palestinian state would not occur while he was prime minister," the president said last week, in a sharp rebuke.

"And I took him at his word that that's what he meant."

At no stage since Netanyahu's re-election has the White House indicated that Israel would continue to receive US protection at the UN, despite being given numerous opportunities to do so.

Rather, comments from administration officials have been deliberately ambiguous.

"Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome," said the White House spokesman Josh Earnest last month, in comments that reverberated around the diplomatic world, and nowhere more so than in New York.

"Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to re-evaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward."

Dropping the veto?

Ever since the early 1970s, the US has used its veto as a permanent member of the Security Council to shield Israel from hostile and unfavourable resolutions on issues such as settlement activity in the Palestinian territories, operations in Gaza and Lebanon, and its controversial West Bank barrier.

Back in February 2011, the Obama administration used its first veto at the Security Council to block a resolution condemning settlement activity.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories provoke strong feelings

Even as late as last December, it lobbied to thwart a Palestinian-backed resolution demanding an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories by 2017, which failed to secure the necessary nine votes needed for passage (which meant a US veto was not required to block it).

The question now, just four months on, is whether the US would allow a European-backed resolution outlining the parameters of a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians to pass the Security Council.

Pushed by the French, discussions will begin this week on the possible wording of such a resolution, which could include a timetable for negotiations, and also the establishment of a Palestinian state.

The Israelis would ordinarily expect the Americans to quash such a move. Now US opposition is by no means guaranteed.

Alert to a potential shift in policy, the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said last week when he announced the resolution: "I hope that the partners who were reluctant will not be reluctant anymore."

"Would the US abstain from a resolution that Israel opposes? That's the question here," says Robert Danin, a former White House official and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"It's a distinct possibility."

Such a resolution could be a "legacy item" for the Obama administration, he says, but ultimately "it all depends on the quality of the resolution".

The wording is key.

Exerting pressure

While the new Israeli coalition government is in the process of being formed, Danin thinks that Washington is trying to exert pressure on Netanyahu.

"The administration is using the diplomatic ambiguity of the moment to shape a more centrist coalition," he says.

When I asked Israel's UN ambassador Ron Prosor whether his country was about to lose its American protection, he delivered a stock response.

'There is no better friend to Israel than the United States of America," he said.

Image copyright Israeli Embassy
Image caption Ron Prosor is isolated at the UN

"The American people know that in the Middle East there's no greater friend for the United States than the people of Israel."

But Mr Prosor cuts an increasingly isolated figure at the UN.

Try as he might to apply some diplomatic veneer to the troubled relationship, the gaping cracks are plain to see.

Israel continues to enjoy widespread support on Capitol Hill, not just from Republicans but Democrats as well.

Were the Obama administration to withdraw its protection, there would be blowback from Congress.

President Obama also has other domestic political questions to weigh up.

The best way of securing his legacy is to ensure that another Democrat, most probably Hillary Clinton, succeeds him.

A breach with Israel less than two years from a presidential election runs the risk of alienating Jewish voters - though it is harder these days to speak of the Jewish vote as a monolith, because many Jewish Americans share the administration's frustrations with Netanyahu.

One possibility is that the Obama administration would allow a weakened resolution to go through the Security Council that would set only broad parameters for a final peace deal, and enshrine once again the land for peace formula, but not impose any deadlines.

Historical precedent

It is worth remembering that there have been breaches of the firewall in the past.

In 1990, the first Bush administration voted for a resolution strongly critical of Israel's handling of riots on Jerusalem's Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, which was then seen as a significant shift.

In May 2004, the Bush administration, which was staunch in its support for Israel, abstained from a resolution condemning Israeli military action in Gaza, rather than using its veto.

However, removing US protection at this juncture would mark a far more historic shift, because the resolution under discussion goes right to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian question: the two-state solution itself.

Supporting a toughly worded resolution in the face of strong Israeli opposition would be a major leap, and one that even an aggrieved second-term president might not be willing to make.

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