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US vs UN on Israeli settlements

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Israel has been evicting Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes to make way for settlers [AFP]by MJ Rosenberg

Anyone who thought that the United States has learned anything from the various revolutions upturning the Arab world has another think coming. We didn't.

On Thursday, as the Egyptian revolution was culminating with the collapse of the Mubarak regime, the Obama administration announced that it intends to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution, sponsored by 122 nations, condemning Israeli settlement expansion.

This is from AFP's report on what Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"We have made very clear that we do not think the Security Council is the right place to engage on these issues," Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg told the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee.

"We have had some success, at least for the moment, in not having that arise there. And we will continue to employ the tools that we have to make sure that continues to not happen," said Steinberg.

There is so much wrong with Steinberg's statement that it is hard to know where to start.

First is the obvious. Opposition to Israeli settlements is perhaps the only issue on which the entire Arab and Muslim world is united. Iraqis and Afghanis, Syrians and Egyptians, Indonesians and Pakistanis don't agree on much, but they do agree on that. They also agree that the US policy on settlements demonstrates flagrant disregard for human rights in the Muslim world (at least when Israel is the human rights violator).

Accordingly, a US decision to support the condemnation of settlements would send a clear message to the Arab and Muslim world that we understand what is happening in the Middle East and that we share at least some of its peoples' concerns.

The settlement issue should be an easy one for the United States. Our official policy is the same as that of the Arab world. We oppose settlements. We consider them illegal.  We have repeatedly demanded that the Israelis stop expanding them (although the Israeli government repeatedly ignores us). The administration feels so strongly about settlements that it recently offered Israel an extra $3.5bn in US aid to freeze settlements for 90 days.

It is impossible, then, for the United States to pretend that we do not agree with the resolution (especially when its language was carefully drafted to comport with the administration's official position). So why will we veto a resolution that expresses our own views?

Steinberg says that "We do not think the Security Council is the right place to engage on these issues."

Why not? It is the Security Council that passed all the major international resolutions (with US support) governing Israel's role in the occupied territories since the first one, UN Resolution 242 in 1967.

He then adds, with clear pride that:

"We have had some success, at least for the moment, in not having that [the settlements issue] arise there."

Very impressive. The United States has had no success whatsoever in getting the Netanyahu government to stop expanding settlements — to stop evicting Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem to make way for ultra-Orthodox settlers — and no success in getting Israel to crack down on settler violence, but we have had "some success" in keeping the issue out of the United Nations.

The only way to resolve the settlements issue, according to Steinberg, "is through engagement through the parties, and that is our clear and consistent position". Clear and consistent it may be. But it hasn't worked. The bulldozers never stop.

Of course, it is not hard to explain the Obama administration's decision to veto a resolution embodying positions that we support. It is the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is lobbying furiously for a US veto (actually not so furiously; AIPAC doesn't waste energy when it knows that its congressional acolytes — and Dennis Ross in the White House itself — will do its work for them).

The power of the lobby is the only reason we will veto the resolution. Try to come up with another one. After all, voting for the resolution (or, at least, abstaining on it) serves US interests in the Middle East at a critical moment and is consistent with US policy.

But it would enrage the lobby and its friends who will threaten retribution in the 2012 election.

Simply put, our Middle East policy is all about domestic politics. And not even the incredible events of the past month will change that.

That is why US standing in the Middle East will continue to deteriorate. We simply cannot deliver. After all, there is always another election on the horizon and that means that it is donors, not diplomats, who determine US policy.

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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