Antony Blinken is likely to be feeling relieved. After a weekend of frantic negotiation, the secretary of state managed to forestall a vote Monday morning at the U.N. Security Council demanding that Israel halt a new wave of settlements in the West Bank territory it has occupied since 1967. That Blinken was so determined to avoid having to use America’s veto to block the draft resolution, a move that has been a hallmark of American foreign policy at the United Nations for decades, speaks to a new hesitation in Washington to defend an Israeli government that threatens not only any lingering hope of peace with the Palestinians, but also the rights of all of its citizens, Arab and Jewish alike. But in the end, he worked to preserve a status quo that no longer exists.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is again running the show in Jerusalem after a brief period out of power, this time around things are markedly different. In November’s Knesset election, the fifth in the last four years, his right-wing Likud Party turned to ultranationalist, ultra-Orthodox and anti-LGBTQ politicians to cobble together a majority. The characters empowering Netanyahu’s Faustian return to power are “emblematic of a fundamental shift in Israeli politics: The extreme has entered the mainstream,” The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg determined in a recent article. Though the far-right extremists Netanyahu has blessed with key positions in his Cabinet “garnered just 10 percent of ballots, it is now in position to exercise outsize authority in a coalition that cannot function without its support,” Rosenberg continued.
Despite the continued swerve toward intolerant authoritarianism by Netanyahu and his allies, Blinken has previously offered unwavering American support for Israel. “We will gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities,” Blinken said at J Street’s annual conference in December. “We will hold it to the mutual standards we have established in our relationship over the past seven decades.”
But the policies the Israelis have pursued are anything but promising. Netanyahu has shown no real interest in moderating his allies, especially as they continue to work to negate the bribery charges he faces. Weeks of pro-democracy protests haven’t deterred the government’s plans to strip power from the Supreme Court, undoing a check on the Knesset’s authority. Meanwhile, a flare-up in tensions — including a provocative visit to Jerusalem’s holy sites by the far-right minister in charge of Israel’s police — has been marked by Palestinian gunmen’s killing Israelis, militants’ firing rockets from the Gaza Strip, the Israelis’ passing a law to “strip Arabs convicted in nationalistic attacks on their Israeli citizenship or residency” and the largest Israeli raid on the West Bank in decades.
Last week, Netanyahu’s government escalated things further, voting to ramp up police operations against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More alarmingly, the Israeli Security Cabinet voted to recognize nine illegal outposts in the West Bank as authorized Jewish settlements. The Cabinet also “decided to connect dozens of other illegal outposts to state infrastructure like water and electricity and approve the planning and building of thousands of new housing units in the settlements,” Axios’ Barak Ravid reported.
This was obviously a policy move just waiting for a pretext given the coalition’s previously announced priorities, which include eventually annexing the West Bank entirely. But all of Israel’s West Bank settlements, even the “recognized” ones, are illegal under international law. The Biden administration agrees, but renewed American pressure on the Israelis has failed to reverse the surge in construction that began during the Trump administration’s support for the settlements.
“The only thing that will give them pause is what the U.S. does — or doesn’t do — in the U.N. Security Council,” Martin Indyk, a former U.S. envoy to the Middle East, recently told Axios. The Security Council’s resolutions are binding on U.N. members, but the U.S. is one of five countries with veto power able to block any drafts they don’t like. Accordingly, the U.S. has vetoed dozens of resolutions that it has viewed as biased against Israel since 1972, most recently in 2018. (A rare exception occurred in December 2016, when the outgoing Obama administration abstained on a resolution demanding a halt in settlement construction, allowing it to pass.)
The draft resolution that was due to be voted on Monday, which the United Arab Emirates wrote with input from the Palestinians, reaffirmed that “the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law.” It also demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory.”
But the Biden administration was worried “that using its veto to protect Israel risks losing support at the world body for measures condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine,” The Associated Press reported. Blinken’s calls between the Israelis and the Palestinians managed to come with some short-term results: The Palestinians reportedly backed down in exchange for a potential White House visit for President Mahmoud Abbas and an increased aid package; likewise, the Israelis announced that they “will not authorize new settlements beyond the nine already approved.”
These are positive outcomes, but a much simpler solution was always at hand: letting the draft resolution pass. Blinken’s diplomacy averted the U.S.’s having to make a difficult decision in the immediate term, but it will remain on the horizon so long as extremists are setting Israeli policy.
I get that there are domestic political reasons to let Netanyahu slide, again, as Republicans would love to call President Joe Biden antisemitic for daring to allow criticism of Israel. This was apparently never seen as a real option in the administration, but I fail to see what about this Israeli government is worth protecting with a veto.
And it’s clear that the views and actions by Netanyahu’s government won’t be restrained. It defies international law and willfully disregards any prospects to revive the peace process, choosing instead to further alienate its Arab population and crack down on Palestinians in the occupied territories. Its intolerance, autocratic tendencies and unvarnished bigotry have its own people worried that their democracy is at risk, though it is a democracy that has always excluded non-Jews. It has even refused to take sides in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. None of that will change in gratitude for an American veto. And as the Israel Policy Forum’s Michael Koplow wrote, “shielding Israel from the full consequences of its actions when they contravene U.S. policy is not” in America’s best interest.
There is no obligation — moral or realpolitik — for the Biden administration to defend Israel from condemnation for actions the U.S. views as heinous. That vetoing such condemnation is even still on the table isn’t just a sign of wishful thinking by the U.S.; it’s a sign that there is no Israeli government that won’t operate under the aegis of American protection, no matter how contrary it is to the values the U.S. espouses.