By Bernard Avishai / The New Yorker
December 27, 2016
“Secretary Kerry averaged roughly one phone call a week to the Israeli Prime Minister over the last four years — almost four hundred — to plead, to warn, against the path his government was on. Not only did settlement-construction activities continue apace, they were accelerated.”
— Robert Malley, the special assistant to the President on the National Security Council, the senior adviser for the campaign against isis, and the White House coördinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf
Last Friday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2334, with a dramatic abstention by the Obama Administration. The resolution called on Palestinian leaders to take “immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror,” and refrain from “incitement and inflammatory rhetoric.” Its real target, though, was Israel’s settlement project, which, the resolution sharply claimed, has “no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace.”
Later in the day on Friday, I spoke to Robert Malley, the special assistant to the President on the National Security Council, the senior adviser for the campaign against isis, and the White House coördinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf. In February, 2011, the Obama Administration vetoed a similar U.N. condemnation of settlements—opposing fourteen other members of the Security Council and a hundred and twenty co-sponsors from the General Assembly. Why abstain now, I asked Malley, and not then? “A real difference is that efforts to advance negotiations were ongoing in 2011,” Malley told me. “We were concerned not to interfere with a process that had some prospect of progressing. That’s not the case since Secretary Kerry’s efforts in 2014. We are at an impasse. There is no prospect of resumption of serious meaningful talks between the sides, so the argument that a U.N. resolution would interfere with negotiations doesn’t hold much water.”
In speaking of an “impasse,” Malley was exercising tact. The most salient change, he went on, is the attitude of the Israeli government toward the construction of settlements, which “has accelerated since the 2011 veto — tens of thousands of units approved, and in different stages of tendering and construction.” Malley pointed to the so-called normalization bill to legalize outposts and settlement units built on private Palestinian land, which is being considered by the Knesset. Such building is currently illegal under Israeli law, and has put the Israeli government at odds with the Supreme Court. “The legislation would represent a sea change,” Malley told me. “The Prime Minister of Israel just stated that his government was more committed to settlements than any in Israeli history. And one of his ministers” — Naftali Bennett, the Education Minister and the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party — “said the era of the two-state solution is over. So the resolution reflects not so much a change in President Obama’s position as in the Israeli government’s.”
Minutes after the resolution passed, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump gave his response. “As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” he tweeted. He plans to nominate David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer who has raised millions of dollars for an Israeli settlement, to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Trump has also promised to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a symbolic endorsement of the Israeli right’s claim to the entire city — although his designated Secretaries of State and Defense may have something to say about provoking allies like Jordan. The Walla news site, generally supportive of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reported last month that Israeli officials are hopeful that General Michael Flynn — Trump’s designated National Security Adviser, who has close ties to Israel’s defense establishment — will work with Congress to rescind the restrictions Obama put on the ten-year, thirty-eight-billion-dollar Israeli aid package that was approved this fall.