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Bullying the Palestinians

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Barack Obama, [left] Mahmoud Abbasby MJ Rosenberg

It appears that US dealings with the Palestinians have entered a new phase: Bullying.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama telephoned Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to urge him to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements. Obama pressed very hard during the 50 minute call, so hard that Abbas felt constrained to agree to take Obama’s request to the PLO executive committee (which, not surprisingly, agreed that Abbas should not accede to Obama’s request).

But what a request it is!

For Palestinians, Israeli settlements are the very crux of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, it is the gobbling up of the land by settlements that is likely to prevent a Palestinian state from ever coming into being.

Asking the Palestinian leader to agree to oppose a resolution condemning them is like asking the Israeli prime minister to agree to drop Israel’s claim to the Israeli parts of Jerusalem.

In fact, the mere US request for a 90-day settlement freeze (a request sweetened with an offer of $3.5bn in extra aid) outraged the Netanyahu government. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu could not even bring himself to respond (probably figuring that he will get the extra money whenever he wants it anyway). The administration then acted as if it never made the request at all, so eager is it to not offend Netanyahu in any way.

But it is a different story with Palestinians for obvious reasons (they have no political clout in Washington). Even when they ask the UN to support them on settlements, the administration applies heavy pressure on them.

But why so much pressure? After all, it is a big deal when the president calls a foreign leader and, to be honest, the head of the Palestinian Authority is not exactly the president of France or prime minister of Canada.

The reason Obama made that call is that he was almost desperate to avoid vetoing the United Nations Security Council Resolution condemning illegal Israel settlements. And it is not hard to see why.

Given the turbulence in the Middle East, and the universal and strong opposition in the Arab and Muslim world to US shilly-shallying on settlements, the last thing the administration wants to do is veto a resolution condemning them.

That is especially true with this resolution, sponsored by 122 nations, and which embodies long-stated US policies. All US interests dictate either support for the resolution or at least abstention.

But the administration rejected that approach, knowing that if it supported the resolution, AIPAC would go ballistic, along with its House and Senate (mostly House) cutouts. (Here are some of them issuing warnings already).

Then the calls would start coming in from AIPAC-connected donors who would warn that they will not support the president’s re-election if he does not veto. And Netanyahu would do to Obama what he did to former President Clinton - work with the Republicans (his favourite is former speaker Newt Gingrich) to bring Obama down.

What was an administration to do? It did not want to veto but was afraid not to.

Earlier in the week, it floated a plan which would have the Security Council mildly criticise settlements in a statement (not a resolution). According to Foreign Policy, the statement: "Expresses its strong opposition to any unilateral actions by any party, which cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognised by the international community, and reaffirms, that it does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, which is a serious obstacle to the peace process." The statement also condemns "all forms of violence, including rocket fire from Gaza, and stresses the need for calm and security for both peoples".

Did you notice where settlements are mentioned? Read slowly. It is there.

Reading the language, it is not hard to guess where the statement was drafted. Rather than simply address settlements, it throws in such AIPAC pleasing irrelevancies (in this context) as "rocket fire from Gaza" which has absolutely nothing to do with West Bank settlements. In other words, it reads like an AIPAC-drafted House resolution, although it does leave out the "hooray for Israel" boilerplate which is standard in Congress but which the Security Council is unlikely to go for.

All this to avoid vetoing a resolution which expresses US policy. Needless to say, the US plan went nowhere. Hypocrisy only carries the day when it is not transparent.

As I wrote earlier this week, this is what happens when donors and not diplomats are driving US policy. It is too bad that they do not care that they are making the US look like Netanyahu's puppet in front of the entire world.

MJ Rosenberg is a senior foreign policy fellow at Media Matters Action Network. The above article first appeared in Foreign Policy Matters, a part of the Media Matters Action Network.


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