Just before dawn on May 31, 2010, a team of Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish ship to enforce a blockade against the terrorist organization Hamas in Gaza. As they came aboard, the Israelis were assaulted by a violent faction of Islamic militants. A melee followed in which several of the commandos were seriously injured and nine of the Turkish militants were killed. The clash was over before the sun came up.
It was still daylight when, 5,600 miles away, the Israeli delegation to the United Nations was summoned to appear before an emergency session of the Security Council to be chastised for the actions of the commandos. Convened just hours after the violence, the council spent the night of May 31, into the wee hours of the morning, absorbed in “a highly emotional emergency session…[to express] international anger over the Israeli attack,” as the Washington Post described it.
The scene was a familiar one. In 1983, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, described it thus: “What takes place in the Security Council more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem-solving…. Israel is cast as villain…in [a] melodrama…that features… many attackers and a great deal of verbal violence. … The goal is isolation and humiliation of the victim. … The attackers, encountering no obstacles, grow bolder, while other nations become progressively more reluctant to associate themselves with the accused, out of fear that they themselves will become a target of bloc hostility.”
The reenactment of this familiar drama on May 31 opened with a presentation by Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the assistant secretary-general of the United Nations for political affairs. His job was to speak for the institution as a whole and to frame the issue objectively for the debate, on behalf of his boss, Ban Ki-moon. Fernandez-Taranco explained that the bloodshed had occurred because Israel had refused to end “its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza,” which was exacerbating “the unmet needs of Gaza’s civilian population.” For balance, Fernandez-Taranco took note of Israel’s claim that the demonstrators on board the Mari Marmara had used knives and clubs against Israeli naval personnel.
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, followed in lockstep. This was, he said, “murder conducted by a state” with “no justification whatsoever” against a flotilla whose “sole aim had been to provide much-needed relief.” The doctrine of self-defense “did not in any way justify the actions taken by the Israeli forces.” It was an “unlawful ambush…an act of barbarism…aggression on the high seas.”
One speaker after another repeated the themes of an unjustified blockade using excessive force with no legal basis. None made any distinction between a blockade of arms and one against civilian goods. Each called for an end to the blockade, without explaining how Israel is to protect itself from terrorist contraband.
Finally, the Israeli representative, Daniel Carmon, got his chance to respond. He was the only speaker to point out that a state of armed conflict exists between Israel and Hamas; that Gaza is dominated by terrorists who seized it in a violent coup; and that arms were being smuggled into the territory, including by sea. He pointed out that a maritime blockade, even in international waters, is a legitimate and recognized measure in an armed conflict. Any responsible government would act accordingly in similar circumstances to protect its civilians. Israel regretted the loss of innocent life, but could not compromise its security. The soldiers boarding one of the ships were violently attacked and threatened with kidnap and lynching. They acted in self-defense.
I have saved the American delegation’s response for last, because it is the one we want to examine closely. This emergency session of the Security Council was a moment of truth for the Obama administration, the kind of agonizing decision that reveals character and intent and priorities. Had George W. Bush still been in the White House, the action of the U.S. delegation could have been predicted with some confidence. In July 2002, the Bush administration announced a policy toward Security Council resolutions against Israel, known as the Negroponte Doctrine.
The Negroponte Doctrine, which was explicitly posted on the website of the U.S. mission to the United Nations in 2003, read:
We will not support any resolution that dodges the explicit threat to Middle East peace posed by Hamas and other such terrorist groups. … Any Security Council resolution…must contain…an explicit condemnation of Hamas [and other] organizations responsible for acts of terrorism; and…call for dismantling the infrastructure, which supports these terror operations.
The Obama administration has not yet revealed whether the United States remains committed to these Negroponte principles. As a candidate running against Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama implied that he was so committed. On January 22, 2008, on the eve of the Democratic presidential primaries, he wrote to Zalmay Khalilzad, who was then Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, in words that could have been written in response to the post-flotilla meeting:
I urge you to ensure that the Security Council issue no statement and pass no resolution on the Gaza situation that does not fully condemn the rocket assault Hamas has been conducting on civilians in southern Israel. … All of us are concerned about the impact of closed border crossings on Palestinian families. However, we have to understand why Israel is forced to do this. Gaza is governed by Hamas…a terrorist organization sworn to Israel’s destruction, and Israeli civilians are being bombarded….Israel has the right to respond while seeking to minimize any impact on civilians. The Security Council should…make clear that Israel has the right to defend itself against such actions. If it cannot bring itself to make these common sense points, I urge you to ensure that it does not speak at all.
In other words, he was urging an American veto.
On July 14, his ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said, “We will… combat all international attempts to challenge the legitimacy of Israel… at the United Nations.” But many of Obama’s admirers do not want or expect him to stand by such commitments. The Nobel Committee that gave him the Peace Prize said it did so because of his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy… with emphasis on the role that the United Nations…can play…on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”
The 6 million Jews of Israel, who have only one vote in the UN, face a billion and half Muslims, who have 50 votes. It is the American veto in the UN Security Council that provides a potential line of defense for them.
But the statement actually made by Obama’s spokesman at that emergency session on the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010 fell far short of the pointed language used in Obama’s 2008 letter to Khalilzad. Alejandro Wolff, the deputy permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations, did not threaten to veto. He did not put the focus on the threat from Hamas. He did not mention the danger of arms infiltration. And he was silent on the legitimacy of the Israeli blockade. He did say that nonconfrontational mechanisms were available for the delivery of humanitarian aid into Gaza and that direct delivery by sea was not appropriate. He said that Hamas’s interference had complicated humanitarian efforts in Gaza and had undermined security and prosperity for all Palestinians. But Wolff balanced this by saying that Israel had to do more to allow humanitarian goods, including construction materials, into Gaza, while recognizing Israel’s legitimate security concerns.
At the end of the 90-minute public session devoted to these statements, the council went into a private executive session for intense behind-the-scenes bargaining over the wording of a statement to be issued by the council’s president.
Turkey demanded that the Presidential Statement condemn “in the strongest terms” the “Israeli act of aggression” as a “clear violation of international law”; that it ask Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to “undertake an independent international investigation by the U.N.,” including “punishment of all responsible authorities”; and that it call for the immediate lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
The adoption of such a Presidential Statement requires consensus. Votes are not recorded. Here was an opportunity to defend Israel without necessarily going the whole way to a formal veto. Obama could have ensured, in his own words of 2008, “that the Security Council issue no statement and pass no resolution on the Gaza situation that does not…make clear that Israel has the right to defend itself…[and] why Israel is forced to do this.” He could have insisted, as he once urged Khalilzad to insist, that if the Security Council “cannot bring itself to make these common sense points…it [should] not speak at all.”
But that is not what happened. Negotiations produced a Presidential Statement weaker than the one demanded by Turkey but still very unfriendly to Israel. The statement condemned only “those acts” that resulted in deaths and did not cite Israel by name—an elision for which the administration deserves credit. But it contained none of the elements that Obama had said were indispensable and should be sine qua non for the U.S. to agree to a Security Council statement. It made no reference to the threat that gave rise to the blockade; no mention of Hamas or its commitment to destroy a member-state of the United Nations; no acknowledgement that Israel’s purpose is to prevent smuggling of arms; no affirmation of Israel’s right of self-defense under Article 51 of the UN Charter; not a syllable about terrorism; and overall, not one word that could be said to reflect the Israeli point of view.
Then there was this sentence: “The Security Council takes note of the statement of the U.N. Secretary-General on the need to have a full investigation into the matter…conforming to international standards.” This was taken to mean an investigation conducted by an international commission appointed by the secretary-general. This just months after the Goldstone Report, a UN report on the situation in Gaza about which the Obama administration declared it had “serious concerns” because of the report’s “unbalanced focus on Israel” and its “moral equivalence between Israel…and the terrorist group Hamas.”
American diplomats did prevent the Council Statement from authorizing such a UN investigation outright. The U.S. said that Israel, a country with a fiercely independent judiciary and strong democratic institutions, should be allowed to conduct its own investigation with the participation of international observers.
The result of Obama’s reluctance to state unequivocally that he is opposed to a UN investigation was summarized by a Politico headline: “Secretary-General Gaza investigation gathers steam, as U.S. stays neutral.” As former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said in response, “President Obama has not moved decisively to quash the idea, and his inaction is understood in U.N. circles as implicitly consenting to Mr. Ban’s illegitimate initiative.”
Obama’s stance at the May 31 emergency session on the Gaza flotilla incident marks the second time in a week that this administration put its multilateralist objectives ahead of the defense of Israel. At a UN conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which ended three days before the flotilla crisis, the Obama delegation agreed to the unanimous adoption of a final statement. It did so even though the administration let it be known that it had “serious reservations” about its section on the Middle East, which singled out Israel as a violator of nonproliferation efforts and made no mention of Iran.
U.S. National Security Adviser James Jones said after the vote, “The United States deplores the decision to single out Israel in the Middle East section…[as well as] the failure of the resolution to mention Iran.” The U.S. let it pass anyway, so that the conference could be considered a success. After the fact, the administration tried to undo the damage it had caused. “The United States will not permit a conference or actions that could jeopardize Israel’s national security,” Jones said. “We will not accept any approach that singles out Israel or sets unrealistic expectations.” But just hours earlier, the U.S. had done just that.
The questions raised by the U.S. response to the flotilla ambush and the proliferation issue are pointed and pregnant. Are we in for a stream of Security Council Presidential Statements and resolutions that are silent on the terrorist threat, that delegitimize and condemn Israel, summon it before hostile tribunals, curtail its freedom of action to defend its citizens, indict its leaders, and maybe eventually put it under sanctions?
For nearly 40 years, since Richard Nixon’s first veto in Israel’s defense on September 10, 1972, every American president has used the veto to block resolutions hostile to Israel. Richard Nixon vetoed two such draft Security Council resolutions, Gerald Ford four, Ronald Reagan 18 (!), George H.W. Bush four, Bill Clinton three, and George W. Bush nine. Even Jimmy Carter mustered the courage to veto one, on April 30, 1980, because it was inimical to the Camp David Accords he had brokered.
In all, seven American presidents have recorded 41 vetoes in Israel’s defense at the UN Security Council.
Lack of balance in the 41 draft resolutions vetoed was the reason stated or implied most frequently to explain the need for a veto. Resolutions deploring Israel’s use of force or Israeli security measures have been vetoed for failing to acknowledge and equally criticize actions on the Arab side, especially terrorist acts, that gave rise to the Israeli self-defense measures. Resolutions proposing international conferences and other diplomatic initiatives favored by the Arabs have been vetoed because they would conflict with U.S. peace initiatives and direct negotiations among the parties. Several draft resolutions were vetoed because they were deemed inconsistent with Resolutions 242 and 338 or with signed peace agreements. At least two draft resolutions were vetoed because they blamed the government of Israel for extreme acts that were committed by a few Israeli citizens who were being investigated and prosecuted by the Israeli authorities.
In about half of the 41 veto statements, the American representative acknowledged that the United States shared concerns about a given Israeli action but objected to the wording of the resolution or deemed it inappropriate to bring the issue to the Security Council.
The actual number of anti-Israel resolutions and Presidential Statements that have been prevented from coming to a vote at all due to the credible threat of an American veto was probably far larger than these 41 recorded votes. Céline Nahory, an expert on the Security Council, says they “must add up to many hundreds…in closed-door informal consultations [where] the Council largely conducts its business.”
But this “hidden veto” is only as effective as the perceived threat of an actual veto. If it becomes clear that there is an Obama policy of Veto Reticence, other members may lose their fear of an American slapdown—and the hidden veto will be lost, too.
Is Obama soft on the veto? There are many reports suggesting exactly that. On April 29, the Guardian reported that David Hale, a deputy to U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that Obama “may consider allowing the U.N. Security Council to censure Israel on settlement activity…rather than use its veto.”
Foreign Policy magazine’s Josh Rogin reported on June 14 that National Security Adviser Jones said the White House planned to support a separate international investigation if one was initiated at the UN. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley responded noncommittally that day, “We’ll listen to what the Secretary-General has in mind and make a judgment then.”
Reuters concluded on June 8 that “under President Barack Obama, the United States no longer provides Israel with automatic support at the United Nations, where the Jewish state faces a constant barrage of criticism and condemnation.”
Obama may face more draft Security Council resolutions on Israel before long. In November 2009, “chief negotiator” Saeb Erekat said that the Palestinian Authority was preparing to approach the UN Security Council for a resolution declaring a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Abbas had presented it to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and to Russia, Erekat said, and had received positive responses. If the Security Council recognized a Palestinian state conforming to the boundaries that prevailed before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli communities across the “Green Line,” including those in East Jerusalem, would be considered null and void. Erekat said that the Arabs would approach the Security Council when the time was right. And it might be—soon. If the Israeli cabinet resumes construction in settlements when the self-imposed 10-month moratorium ends on September 26, the Palestinians may think it prudent to move on their provocation.
Other matters could also reach the UN Security Council in the next 12 to 24 months. Obama’s decision to reject compromises over settlements that had been crafted by previous administrations and to confront Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue in May 2009 and March 2010 may have planted ideas in Arab minds. They may think that a wedge can be driven between the United States and Israel by putting the settlements and Jerusalem issues in a Security Council resolution that Obama might be loath to veto.
Nor does this exhaust the list. Hamas and Hezbollah could launch terrorist acts against Israel from behind civilian shields, and when, inevitably, the Israeli response causes civilian casualties on the Arab side, their allies can go to the Security Council to condemn Israel for “excessive” or “disproportionate” use of force.
It is reasonable to predict that Barack Obama will soon face the veto issue again at the Security Council.
If Obama intends to be the first president since 1970 not to cast a veto in Israel’s defense, the consequences for the Middle East are going to be grave. If the U.S. will no longer stand in the way, why would Palestinians and Arabs participate in honest and direct negotiations with Israel that would cause them to make sacrifices? Without America’s veto intervention, they would have an automatic majority at the Security Council that would give them what they want for free.
Obama himself might pay a price. History tells the tale. On nine substantive votes on the Middle East taken in the Security Council between January 1979 and August 1980, the administration of Jimmy Carter abstained seven times, and, in March 1980, it voted for a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity in Jerusalem. Democrats were aghast. New York Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, who had served as UN ambassador five years earlier, said, “As a direct result of [Carter administration] policy, the Security Council was allowed to degenerate to the condition of the General Assembly.”
Carter admitted that the March 1980 Security Council vote against Israeli housing in Jerusalem hurt him badly in the 1980 Democratic presidential primary in New York, where polls prior to that vote had shown him leading. Senator Edward Kennedy beat the incumbent president—59 percent to 41. Carter told the New York Times, “it was the United Nations vote,” a conclusion shared by his top strategists.
An interesting augury for the future, perhaps.