Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama in 2013. Photo courtesy The Israel Project.
In the waning weeks of Jimmy Carter’s administration, negotiations quietly moved forward to resolve the Tehran hostage standoff that bedeviled Carter’s presidency and helped bring about his 1980 defeat by Ronald Reagan.
The Iranians had one final insult for Carter: On the day the hostages were finally freed, they kept the plane on the tarmac until Reagan had been sworn into office. This, in the Iranians’ warped view of the world, would somehow epitomize Carter’s defeat at the hands of their Islamic revolution.
Carter, of course, never gave the least sign that he cared about anything other than getting the hostages freed from the U.S. Embassy where they had been tormented for well over a year. He looked on as Reagan took the oath of office and then rejoiced along with the rest of America in the peaceful conclusion to the saga. There was certainly never any hint that Carter might have done something to squelch the deal or otherwise insist that his honor be upheld. In a long tradition of bipartisanship in foreign policy, the national interest took precedence over the perceived legacy of any particular office holder.
Which brings us to the current soon-to-be-former president, who seems to think about nothing other than his own historical legacy – a topic on which he is due to expound, yet again, later today in Chicago.
In the waning weeks of his White House tenure, President Obama reversed more than four decades of U.S. policy and allowed the United Nations Security Council to enact a resolution condemning as illegal all Israeli settlements in occupied territory, including East Jerusalem. The U.S. has historically used its Security Council veto power to bury similar measures. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., claimed the abstention was consistent with the longstanding American position that Israeli settlement activity has hampered a two-state solution. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told PBS Newshour that the increasing pace of settlements prompted the president’s position.
The White House’s protests to the contrary aside, the abstention was not part of some Obama initiative to bring, at long last, a peaceful resolution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. This was an expression of personal umbrage and pique on the part of the president against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Obama has long clashed. Any actual consequences to the United States and its ongoing foreign policy under Obama’s successor were simply not a consideration, as Obama made abundantly clear by ignoring incoming President-elect Donald Trump’s call for the standard U.S. veto of Resolution 2334.
Obama has noted, perfectly reasonably, that Israeli settlement activity increasingly makes the two-state Middle East solution favored by the United States impractical to achieve on the ground. But the U.N. resolution will do nothing to actually deter Israel from maintaining or expanding settlements – especially since East Jerusalem is included in the definition of occupied territory, and the Israelis do not consider any part of Jerusalem to be occupied at all. As Jennifer Williams colorfully observed, writing for Vox, “…Israel is free to completely ignore the resolution and tell the international community to stuff it.”
What the resolution does promise to do is complicate business activities for Israelis and anyone doing business with them, by encouraging boycotts of products from the occupied areas. Since labor and materials freely move between pre-1967 Israel proper, East Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements, this threatens to entrap American enterprises in global boycott initiatives.
Since the mid-1970s, it has been part of U.S. law and policy not to permit Americans to participate in anti-Israel boycotts. So by allowing Resolution 2334 to pass, Obama and his administration undermined a longstanding foundation of America’s posture in the region. This was done, in true Obama fashion, unilaterally, without the advice or consent of Congress or the incoming administration that has to try to clean up the mess. In turn 10 Senate Democrats, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, joined a bipartisan resolution disapproving of Resolution 2334. More than 20 Democrats co-sponsored a similar resolution in the House.
And those were just Obama’s friends. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, went farther and declared Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry active enemies of Israel in a statement following the U.N. vote. On Twitter, Cruz vowed to work to cut United Nations funding until it reverses the vote.
The Obama move was such a gift to the anti-Israel contingent in the U.N. that the body’s press office declared that Resolution 2334 “reaffirmed” that Israel’s settlements “have no legal validity.” The Security Council reaffirmed nothing of the sort, since every similar resolution in the past was subject to a U.S. veto.
I have no intention of defending Israel’s settlement policy, which I – like many Americans of both parties – find unjustified and counterproductive. But one-sided boycotts and condemnations won’t bring about a two-sided peace, a fact that our country’s leadership has consistently recognized for decades until just now. Now, a narcissistic, embittered soon-to-be-ex president decided to throw sand into the foreign policy gears just to prove his own relevance to himself.
Carter’s handling of that emotional inauguration day 36 years ago still stands out for its grace, humility, dignity and patriotism. Obama’s behavior will be remembered for many years as well, but for entirely different reasons.