UN condemnation of settlements – an opportunity?

The UN Security Council resolution that was introduced this week condemning Israeli settlement expansion is sure to provide more grist for Israel’s ‘de-legitimization’ mill. Increasingly paranoid commentators will lump the resolution together with all critique they don’t like as undermining the Israel’s right to exist. If so, they will implicitly contribute to an absurd notion that the legitimacy of Israel rests on the right to settlement expansion.

The resolution could also offer opportunities; but Israel seems likely to insist on missing them. Even if not a single olive tree in the West Bank is protected from bulldozers, to view the the resolution as “only symbolic” (in Hebrew) , as Globes wrote, misses those possibilities.

In fact, if brought to a vote (which is not certain) there could be opportunities for America, Israel and the Palestinians alike.

Opportunities for US

The vote is an opportunity for America to end its milquetoast policy and take a stand, by refraining from using its veto. That would be a gesture to Palestinians and the Arab world, which is fast losing faith in the President as a fair negotiator.

A non-veto (outright US support, advocated by Philip Wilcox) seems too much to ask for) would be a serious gesture to all those American Jews and others who hoped Obama would push harder for a two-state solution. Among American Jews, a 53% majority support the President pressuring Israel to move a negotiated solution forward, in a November 2010 J Street survey.

Specifically, American Jewry is also largely behind a settlement freeze. In J Street’s survey, a 46% plurality chose the statement: “I support Israel, but it must stop taking actions that violate United States policy such as expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank” over an opposing statement. In an AJC survey, nearly two-thirds of American Jews  support at least a partial settlement freeze.

Opportunities for Israel

First, whether the resolution passes or not, Israel will be increasingly squeezed to freeze. Instead of crying to the world that it can’t cease settlement growth due to domestic constraints, Prime Minister Netanyahu can start crying to his domestic constituencies that international pressures are forcing his hand. If he doesn’t want to cry, he could skip the announcement and enact a de facto settlement freeze with little fanfare.

Ceasing settlement is after all one of the least controversial policy options inside Israel, despite appearances. In the latest Truman Institute survey, 64% of all Israelis think there should be some sort of freeze (37% in the areas outside large settlement blocs likely to remain part of Israel, 27% in all of the territories). The resolution is an opportunity to leverage that support.

Second, a settlement freeze would facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian state.
It is not a coincidence that the UN resolution overlapped this week with increasing momentum for the Palestinian state movement. Indeed, the Secretary General’s tough talk to the General Assembly on Friday condemned settlements and supported statehood almost in one breath. While Israeli officials still laugh it off, their laughter is becoming more nervous after a slew of South American countries – and this week, Russia – recognized Palestine (in Russia’s case, re-affirmed recognition).

As I have argued, unilaterally declared Palestinian statehood could be an opportunity for Israel, as well as for Palestinians. Israel would be off the hook at home for having to officially accept concessions. Statehood for Palestine could sidestep the peace process, which seems, remarkably, to have become more intractable than the conflict itself. Statehood could spur much-needed Palestinian democratization, although to be sure, it could also touch off much-feared internal political violence. You might say that unilaterally declared statehood for Palestine is the worst option, except for all the other options.

Maybe that’s why the idea is finally gathering force among those more thoughtful than the Israeli government: Ynet published two op eds about it over the last two days: Eitan Haber discusses its inevitability , and Daniel Oz  argues its legitimacy – calling, no less, for Israel to recognize Palestine.

The foil to this new and creative possibility is settlements. Settlement expansion is the slammed door in the face of all progress, negotiated or not. If expansion continues, Palestinian statehood might actually increase the likelihood of war, as an incursion into sovereign territory.

In her cogent and sophisticated plea for America to support the resolution, Hanan Ashwari argues in the Herald Tribune that:

[Vetoing the resolution]…closes down what few avenues are open to Palestinians, in the absence of negotiations, to continue our national struggle through nonviolent means.”

Conversely, she might have added, the resolution is an opportunity to show the Palestinians that non-violence pays. It should be obvious that a non-violent Palestinian struggle is better for Israel than violence.

In sum, the resolution could be an opportunity for Israel to re-engage with the world and roll back creeping pariah status, by ending settlement expansion either to pre-empt, or in light of the vote. That would pave a smoother road toward Palestinian statehood, however it is achieved.

In my dreams, Israeli leaders will think long term, strategically, and consider those opportunities. In my predictions, readers will say I’ve totally lost touch with reality. And when the resolution passes (or even if not) Israel will wave it around as proof that brave hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda) efforts are rendered helpless against the great juggernaut of political delegitimization. And settlement growth will march along inexorably, plunging the region into doom.