Why UN resolution against Israeli settlements could backfire

The political geography has changed dramatically since the Security Council’s last such resolution in 1980, and support is growing for the settlers' cause in Netanyahu's Israel.

Majdi Mohammed/AP
This Oct. 22, 2016 file photo shows a general view of housing in the Israeli settlement of Revava, near the West Bank city of Nablus. Doubling down on its public break with the Obama administration, a furious Israeli government said Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016, that it has "ironclad" information from Arab sources that Washington actively helped craft last week's UN resolution declaring Israeli settlements illegal.

The United Nations Security Council’s resolution Friday condemning Israeli settlements as “a flagrant violation under international law,” and the United States’ decision not to block it, has been broadly welcomed by anti-settlement advocates.

But it could end up having exactly the opposite effect from the one desired.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long carried on a delicate balancing act between the right wing’s pressure to support settlement expansion and the left’s push for peace with the Palestinians. The UN’s move may compel him to choose between those forces, and it appears the momentum is on the side of the settlers.

At the time of the last such Security Council resolution on settlements, in 1980, there were fewer than 23,000 Israelis living in the West Bank. Today their numbers are around 400,000 and they have far more influence in Israeli government and society – including within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet and the officer ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces, which would be responsible for evacuating settlements in case of dismantlement.

Since Friday’s announcement, the Jerusalem municipality has already announced plans to step up Israeli building in areas of East Jerusalem. And Netanyahu has retaliated diplomatically against countries that supported the resolution – even calling in the US ambassador for a talking-to.

"Israel is a country with national pride, and we don't turn the other cheek," said Mr. Netanyahu, defending his response. "This is a wise, aggressive, and responsible reaction, a natural response that makes it clear to the nations of the world that what took place at the UN is unacceptable to us."

To a certain extent, there is always some bluster in such dust-ups, and this is an especially big dust-up. Essentially the Obama administration has poked Netanyahu’s government in the eye on its way out the door.

But there’s more to the pushback than just feisty rhetoric. For with the dramatic change in physical geography since the 1980s has also come a shift in thought among the Israeli public. Once seen as a fringe movement, those defined by the United Nations as settlers now account for about 10 percent of the Israeli Jewish population. Many of them are driven by religious or ideological convictions – from fulfilling biblical prophecy to bolstering Israel's security in a time of regional upheaval – and are unlikely to be swayed by the edicts of the United Nations.

And though there is still a very vocal Israeli opposition to the settlement enterprise, there is growing support for it.

'Way of the left has failed'

From 2013 to 2015, as the war in Syria worsened and at times came nearly to Israelis’ doorsteps, the percentage of Israeli Jews who believe settlements help Israel’s security jumped from 31 percent to 42 percent, according to a Pew survey. And the Israel Democracy Institute, as part of its monthly Peace Index, found last month that 44 percent of Israeli Jews support annexing the West Bank.

Given that political context, and perhaps emboldened by a global tailwind of right-wing populism and fears of radical Islam, some in Netanyahu’s government see a ripe opportunity for capitalizing on those sentiments.

“The way of the left has failed, now it is time to try our solution, sovereignty – taking the maximum territory with minimum Palestinians,” said Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, which is to the right of Netanyahu’s Likud.

For a number of years, Mr. Bennett – the former head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing settlers – has advocated extending Israel’s sovereignty to the portions of the West Bank known collectively as Area C. It accounts for about 60 percent of the West Bank and includes all Israeli settlements.

In the wake of the UN vote, Bennett is now pushing for the Israeli parliament to start by extending sovereignty to Maale Adumim, a settlement of more than 40,000 residents just to the east of Jerusalem. A poll earlier this year found 78 percent of Israelis in favor of annexing the settlement.

Problem is 'so much worse'

Even without any annexation, the growth of the settlements – many by 20 to 25 percent just since President Obama took office, according to a settler tally – has already made creation of a Palestinian state vastly more difficult.

“The settlement problem has gotten so much worse that it is now putting at risk the very viability of that two-state solution,” said US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, in explaining the US decision to abstain from, rather than veto, Friday’s Security Council resolution.

“The Israeli prime minister recently described his government as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history,’ and one of his leading coalition partners recently declared that ‘the era of the two-state solution is over.’

“At the same time, the Prime Minister has said that he is still committed to pursuing a two-state solution. But these statements are irreconcilable,” Ambassador Power said. "One has to make a choice between settlements and separation.”

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