The United Nations has voted to condemn Israeli settlements to the surprise of no one. The Obama Administration’s decision to abstain from the vote and allow the vote to go forward is, however, an unexpected departure from America’s traditional sheltering of Israeli policy from international criticism. Although the Obama Administration’s failure to veto the UN resolution is terribly upsetting to pro-Israeli factions and being framed as the product of a feud between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, those blindly criticizing the decision need to listen and recognize the threat to Israel that comes from silencing valid criticism of Israel.
International law and acts of the UN are largely unenforceable, unless a world power like the US acts on it, thus the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements is thoroughly symbolic in nature. As the world’s only superpower, the US response to such efforts actually matters far more than the actual resolution. Under traditional wisdom, the US needs to control the “message” to shape the world’s perception of Israel. By suppressing criticism of the Israeli government’s policies, opposition and threats to Israel can be suppressed. The problem with this kind of traditional wisdom is that the suppression of dissent actually tends to inspire greater criticism and opposition.
Propaganda may appear to be a constructive means of controlling perceptions, but such efforts breed distrust and undermine US credibility, even when the US is fully justified in its policies. The same is true for Israel. The freedom to criticize and dissent from the most powerful government in the world, therefore, strengthens US credibility. In turn, the freedom to criticize and dissent from the policies of the Israeli government strengthens the credibility of Israel and validates the security threats to the Israeli homeland. By suppressing all valid criticism of the Israeli government’s policies, anti-Israeli and anti-semantic forces are justified in their attacks on the Jewish State.
The symbolic value of the Obama Administration abstaining from the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements is not limited to the issue of Israeli settlements. Abstaining from a UN referendum criticizing Israel is a means for the US and Israel to show that they are listening to the world. Instead of automatically suppressing criticism, the willingness to listen and accept criticism shows the US and Israel are not above the will of the International Community. It also forces the US and Israel into a position where they are forced to explain the reasoning behind condemned policies, i.e. foster a foreign policy debate. Allowing dissent does not mean agreeing with criticism. It means strengthening the credibility of Israel and the US by acknowledging dissent.
Furthermore, the simple truth is that Israel faces a growing threat the US cannot fight. For those who truly care about the future of Israel, and the unique American-Israeli relationship, it is wise to accept the criticism of the Israeli government and its self-serving, often heavy-handed policies toward the Palestinians. The Obama Administration has been criticized for giving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the cold shoulder, but the US needs to be able to criticize the policies of the Israeli government and the Israeli government needs to be criticized when it engages in destructive policies that create security threats. The Trump Administration and future US Presidencies will be doing Israel a disservice, if they revert back to shielding the Israeli government from valid criticism.
The Peoples of the Middle East are globalizing in terms of developing a far-reaching Muslim identity while they are also democratizing in terms of demanding far more responsive governance. In practice, this means more and more individuals throughout the region see the Palestinian People as their mistreated brothers and the overly aggressive, uncompromising Israeli government, and People, as the enemy. It also means these uniting Muslim Peoples are going to do more to address the mistreatment of the Palestinian People while regional governments will be pressured to address those demands as well, which will be easier than addressing unmet domestic concerns. In short, Israel will become the common enemy of the Middle East and beyond.
Coupled with the threat of globalized terrorism, e.g. the Islamic State, Israel’s failure to resolve its conflict with the Palestinian People threatens the future of Israel. Despite unwavering US political support, the Netanyahu government’s hardliner stance and impulse to engage in catastrophic acts of war against the Palestinians as a first resort unifies the world against Israel. Unfortunately, Netanyahu used his 2015 reelection bid to further polarize the Israeli government against the Palestinians and Muslims. Recognizing the devastation caused by Israeli’s 2014 Operation Edge and his decision to follow up the conflict with the expansion of settlements, Netanyahu appears to have little interest in peace.
Israel has long had an unfortunate tendency of deflecting criticism against its reaction to Hamas attacks and rationalizing even the most blatant disregard for the lives and wellbeing of innocent Palestinians who happen to find themselves in the middle of these two warring parties. Israel is an insecure nation with powerful leaders who perceive their homelands under persistent threat. When insecure leaders perceive a coming threat, they often act in irrational and counterproductive ways to grasp for some sense of security. This includes self-sabotaging behavior. Although peace is an essential part of security, a lack of vigilance against potential threats due to peace creates a sense of insecurity.
While these defense mechanisms may sound legitimate inside Israel, Israel’s right to protect itself does not matter to Palestinians while the rest of the world is not so willing to accept Israel’s rationales. Gone are the days when Israel could respond to an escalating conflict with Hamas by unleashing a deadly barrage of missile attacks on the Gaza Strip, especially considering the potential security risk that globalized terrorism now plays in Israel’s conflict with Hamas. Consequently, Israel needs to make an even greater effort to avoid causalities and collateral damage when defending itself while it must stop provoking the Palestinian People by expanding settlements.
Unless Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian People change, the US faces a future where it will have to choose between supporting the Israeli government and shunning the Peoples of Europe and the Middle East. Given the broader instability of the region and security threats, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is now a tertiary issue that will largely determine the fate of Israel, not the Middle East. For Israel, the threat of a globalizing, democratizing Muslim world and globalized terrorism put the Jewish State in a position where their failure to resolve their issues with the Palestinians may well eventually result in a Middle East united against an Israel lacking allies.
In terms of US foreign policy, American support for Israel is increasingly cost prohibitive due to the hardliner approach of leaders like Netanyahu. Sadly, politics prevents the US from “wavering in its support of Israel,” i.e. openly disagreeing with what Israel does, while being “tough on Hamas” defines the Israeli leadership. Supporting Netanyahu’s policies, therefore, undermines US influence in the Middle East at a time when it is essential. Despite America’s unique relationship with Israel, Netanyahu is truly forcing America to choose between the whole of the Middle East and Israel. It is an unnecessary choice that can only end in one logical conclusion.
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