The gap between the election of the next US president on November 8 and her (or his) inauguration on January 20 is 73 days. That is the gap in which the outgoing president has a relatively free hand to do what he wants with only a minimum of consequences.
Some commentators have believed for some time – and the Israeli government now fears they are right – that Barack Obama will use this opportunity to lift the US veto and allow a resolution calling on Israel to stop building settlements to pass in the United Nations Security Council.
Until the middle of September it looked as if Obama had decided not to make any dramatic last-minute attempt to get the peace process restarted. He tried twice and failed twice. As an Israeli commentator said:
“The one who promised ’yes we can’, was revealed at the end of two terms as not only one who cannot, but one who doesn’t even try. He appears to have thrown in the towel.”
But in the last few weeks there have been a number of hints that Obama may try one last time to reset the bearings of the Middle East peace process with the US joining in a major international effort to put sufficient pressure on the Israeli government to change course.
The first hint came in the Lotte New York Palace hotel where Obama held a 30-minute talk with Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly. Obama raised “profound concerns about the corrosive effect” of settlements on the two-state solution.
Why would he raise this issue if he was just drawing attention to his own failure? If the most powerful man in the world highlights an issue, it could be because he intends to do something about it.
One week later Obama found himself in Jerusalem, leading the tributes to the former Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Peres fought in the Haganah, started the settlements, launched Israel’s nuclear programme and presided over the occupation, so Palestinians have no fond memories of him. But towards the end of his life he became – in his public speeches if not in his actions – a leading “dove”.
Obama was not only the only speaker to mention the “unfinished business of peace” but he made a point in his tribute of quoting Peres’ most “dovish” remarks: “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” “We are against slaves and masters.” “True security comes from making peace with your neighbours.”
Most tellingly, he quoted Peres’ statement that Israel “will be best protected when Palestinians have a state of their own”.
Few people noticed that in his peroration he drew parallels between the early days of American democracy and today’s Israeli democracy. Both had flaws, he said. He didn’t specify what the flaws were, but there can be little doubt that he was talking about slavery and the occupation of Palestine.
Netanyahu’s response – as so often to Obama’s criticisms – was to announce the building of a new settlement. The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the evacuation of an illegal outpost in the West Bank and instead of relocating the settlers to Israel, Netanyahu announced that he will decant them into 300 new homes to be built elsewhere in the West Bank.
According to Israeli ministers this is just “building a few dozen homes” for the residents of the outpost and the 300 new homes “do not constitute a new settlement”, but Obama’s spokesmen have not bought these excuses.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said: “I guess when we’re talking about how good friends treat one another, that’s a source of serious concern.”
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was “disheartening” that while the world mourned Shimon Peres, the Israelis were busy advancing plans “that would seriously undermine the prospects of the two-state solution he so passionately supported.”
The Israeli press have said it was “especially insulting” coming just a few weeks after President Obama signed a deal giving Israel $38 billion in military aid over 10 years.
Payback will start on Friday October 8th when the Security Council holds a special debate on Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank initiated by the Palestinians. The usual US defence of Israeli actions is expected to be muted, if not entirely absent.
There will be no vote on Friday, but there can be a vote on a French resolution on the settlements which is expected any time after Tuesday November 8th – the date of the US elections. The US veto – which has protected the Israelis at least 40 times in the past – may be absent this time.
The last time the veto was used was February 18th 2011 in a similar motion condemning Israeli settlements which was supported by 14 of the 15 countries on the Security Council (including the UK). Only the US using its veto against – even though the motion was in line with US policy at the time.
This time Obama is being urged to lift his veto from many different directions – including the New York Times who say the “best idea would be to have the United Nations Security Council, in an official resolution, lay down guidelines for a peace agreement, covering such issues as Israel’s security, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and borders for both states”.
Both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have asked the President not to sign any “one-sided” motions against Israel, but in between election and inauguration they could press but not prevent him from doing so, and once the Security Council has passed the resolution they will not be able to revoke it.
Since the US veto was first used on September 10th 1972, Israel has been shielded by the US from any effective action to bring it into line with international law and with United Nations resolutions. If Obama ends Israel’s 44 years of immunity and joins with the international community in putting pressure on Israeli to comply with international law, it will be no inconsiderable legacy.