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Some Thoughts on the Recent UN Resolution 2334 and Secretary Kerry’s Statement

01/03/2017 04:43:25 PM


Rabbi Alan Litwak – January 1, 2017

Over the past week, a lot has been written about the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 regarding Israel and the settlements, followed by Secretary Kerry’s long statement regarding a peace process.  I have been hesitant to write anything, as there are plenty of excellent articles and opinions that have been written (for which I have provided links), but I want you to understand my thoughts, and perhaps help you clarify your own.  It is difficult to summarize this in a couple of sentences or minutes.  Nothing in the Middle East is easy and I believe that, despite the consistent polarization that is happening in both the American and the Israeli societies, this requires balance, nuance, and a willingness to see both sides and then come to the center.

In my opinion, both the abstention from the UN vote and the statement by Secretary Kerry were poor decisions.  The animus between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been long-standing and well known.  However, to have these happen with less than a month to go before the change in Administrations and within the UN Security Council feels petulant.  Prime Minister Netanyahu is correct when he says friends don't take friends to the Security Council. Secretary Kerry is correct when he says friends need to be able to tell friends uncomfortable truths.  The reason why I think that these two decisions were so poor is that friends don't tell those truths in forums like the UN where we know that Israel is treated so blatantly unfairly, or at times when you are, in effect, leaving the conversation. It has been noted that this is the first anti-Israel resolution to pass the Security Council since 2009, and the first that the Obama administration did not veto. It has been noted that previous administrations have allowed more anti-Israel resolutions to be passed. As it has been this administration's policy to veto such proposals in the past, it seems strange that they would change course at this point in the game.  For a president who has been seen as being anti-Israel – an assertion that I think is wholly incorrect – vetoing this resolution would have given him the ability to wave the flag of being the only President to have a 100% record of vetoing anti-Israel resolutions.  President Obama has been very open about creating a smooth transition and yet he drops this bomb, knowing that the president-elect did not want this resolution to pass. If you're going to change your policy, then you have to change it when you have the opportunity to do the constructive work necessary for that policy change to mean something.

Let’s leave this for the moment and back up a little bit.  As my colleague and friend, Rabbi Dan Levin, wrote to his congregation, “So, how did we get here? It is easy to fall back on simple answers - to call Obama an anti-Semite or a hater of Israel. It is equally easy to call Netanyahu an anti-Arab bigot and power monger who will do anything to curry favor with the ultra-orthodox and the settler movement. These simplicities are like candy - they may look good and taste great, but they have no nutrition and aren't good for you.”

From the very beginning of his president, Obama has worked in strong military coordination and collaboration which has been beneficial to both countries. It has also been their implied stand that Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 borders are illegal and detrimental to peace.

In order to understand why, we need to go back to the founding of the State of Israel.  The UN Partition Plan that created Israel was intended to create a Palestinian state as well.  The Arabs rejected the Partition Plan and went to war that resulted in Israel securing much larger borders than were originally laid out.  At the same time, thousands of Palestinian Arabs left their homes, thinking that they would soon return.  This was at a time when millions of Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust and millions of others were displaced from their homes throughout Europe.  In the years following 1948, millions of more Jews were displaced from their homes throughout North Africa and the Arab lands to the east of Israel.  When the War of Independence came to an end, the armistice lines may have been recognized as cease-fire lines, but Israel's neighbors never recognized them as legitimate.  In the Six Day War, Israel took control over the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights. Israel maintained control over these territories in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The question of what to do with those territories has challenged us ever since.

The basis for the long-standing American position on those territories comes from how you read UN resolution 242 (following the Six Day War in 1967). The resolution affirms that peace in the Middle East must be based on the principle of "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict." Most countries understand this to mean "all territories" where as Israel and her allies read "territories" to mean not necessarily "all territories." It is this argument, and the principles from the Fourth Geneva Convention that state that nations may not acquire territory through war, that causes most nations in the world to see the settlement enterprise as illegal.

Israel is both a Jewish and Democratic state. If Israel annexed all those territories, they would quickly have found themselves with an Arab majority - and so Israel would have lost its ability to be both Jewish and Democratic. If Israel had wanted to return those territories, it would have meant giving up the strategic advantage that was vital to Israel's defense, and to whom? The Sinai was clearly Egyptian Territory. In light of the rejection of the Partition Plan, Gaza and the West Bank were still undefined. Not only does Judaism see those lands as integral to the Jewish history of the land of Israel, but there were Jewish towns and villages that pre-dated the creation of the State of Israel that were lost in the 1948 War for Independence.  At the same time, there are millions of Palestinian Arabs who lack the right to self-determination who call those lands their home. And despite the political confusion of who has rightful sovereignty over those lands, individual families claim title to many parts of those territories.

Let’s return to the UN Resolution.

I am going to mention but then put aside the inherent absurdity that this resolution was brought up at the United Nations, who has twiddled its thumbs while a half million people have been killed in Syria in the last five years; say nothing of the blind eye that it has turned while human rights abuses have occurred around the world.  While this is important to recognize, it is not crucial to our challenge.

My fundamental disagreement with the UN Resolution is that it treats all building that occurred beyond the borders of 1967 as “settlements” and therefore equally problematic.  As one who spent a year living on the “East Jerusalem” campus of the Hebrew University (established in 1918 and opened in 1925 - long before there was a State of Israel), it is hard for me to equate land that was legally purchased and illegal outposts deep in the West Bank.  There is a fundamental difference between the annexed lands that constitute the city of Jerusalem and other settlement cities. And yet, the UN resolution seems to make no differentiation.  Israel's Supreme Court has clearly stated that settlements built on lands that belong to individual Palestinians are illegal and must be removed. The Amona outpost was an example of such illegal settlement activity and its dismantling by the government was correct.

While we are on the subject of land, I also believe that every country in the world has the right to determine its own capital.  Jerusalem is the capital of the State of Israel and the rest of the world needs to recognize it as such.  This is not to say that Arabs do not have a right to also make Jerusalem their home.

My second fundamental problem with the resolution and the statement is that, while settlement activity may be a detriment to peace, there are many others that were not addressed.  By not mentioning others, or only tangentially, the UN and Obama administration seem to suggest that the settlements are the only detriments.

Where is the condemnation against the Palestinian refusal to negotiate or to bring to closure any of the agreements that have been previously negotiated? Where is the attempt on the part of the Palestinians to bring something else to the table, rather than to sit back and rant to the world?  Look to the future, rather than whine about the past. 

The reality is that both the Palestinians and the Israelis need to want peace badly enough that they are willing to let go of their dream of everything in order to get something.  Does either side really believe that the end result will be that they have the entire land to themselves?

Israel needs to want peace. I don’t see that, particularly when members of the Netanyahu government approve the first reading of a bill that will retroactively legalize the construction and establishment of illegal outposts, and sees Knesset members rejoice at the end of the two-state solution.  What is the long-term path in the face of something like this?

The Palestinians need to want peace badly enough that they will rise up against the militant and feuding organizations that would rather attack Israel and in response bring pain to their own people. 

With no confidence from either side that the other is truly interested in peace, we are left with an impasse.  In the face of that impasse, there is only frustration that breeds insecurity.  Insecurity becomes a breeding ground for human rights violations and violence, and we start the cycle all over again.

When we kick the can down the road, the demographics make a two-state solution more and more challenging, if not impossible.  In the face of an Arab majority, it becomes more and more challenging for Israel to retain its Jewish and democratic character without subjugating Arabs to permanent second class citizens.

It is this reality that the Obama administration has been trying to counter for eight years. Their work to push Israel to accept these demographic realities has failed. And they never pushed the Palestinians hard enough to let go of their maximalist demands, or to cultivate a new generation of leaders who could.  They saw this abstention at the UN was a last ditch attempt to push Israel to halt the settlement enterprise before the creation of a meaningful Palestinian entity becomes impossible.

The ongoing challenge that we have is where Israel and the Palestinians will go from here. The answer is not at all clear.  A peaceful outcome will require a Palestinian leadership who is tired of war and who will sit down with Israel to create a future of co-existence. It will also require an Israeli leadership who will sit down with the Palestinians and make the painful compromises necessary so that peaceful future can emerge. From both sides it will require a vast storehouse of faith. And so I pray that in the holiest land in the world, faith can be found.

Here are several articles that I think are helpful in understanding the resolution and its implications.  These do not necessarily reflect my personal thinking; in fact, there articles with opposing views.   






Thu, October 24 2019 25 Tishrei 5780