Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on her nomination to be the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Jan. 27, 2021. (PHOTO BY MICHAEL REYNOLDS/POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March/April 2021, pp. 14-15
United Nations Report
By Ian Williams
LIKE MOST OF THE REST OF THE WORLD, I was deeply relieved when the 45th President boarded Air Force One for the last time to Florida, especially since his pusillanimous last-minute putsch attempt on the Capitol ensured that his destination was closer to St. Helena than Elba. He is not coming back.
You will have noticed that inaugurations always elicit quotations, so I will join in. The January 6 coup attempt recalled what one of Napoleon’s generals said of a particularly vicious murder, “It was worse than a crime! It was a blunder.” Even so, as the Duke of Wellington said of Waterloo, Trump’s exit “was a damned near-run thing.” And still in quotation mode, the death of Sheldon Adelson, Trump’s mentor and moneyman, also recalled Mark Twain’s observation that, while he “wished no man dead,” he “often read obituaries with great pleasure.” (In my case even more so since I learnt the news from none other than John Bolton, during an interview!)
The departure of Adelson, and indeed Jared Kushner, from the White House advisers’ circle should be a good thing for the politics of the region and the U.S., but without being a party pooper, we clearly need to restrain the euphoria at Joe Biden’s inauguration. Four years of mutual petting and canoodling between the most atavistic wing of the GOP and Likud might have stretched the ties between Israel and the Democrats, but they have not broken them. Until Trump, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama held the world records for pandering to Israeli expansionism. (Although just to maintain a sense of perspective, over in Britain, Israeli lobbyists, and even avowed security agents, now seem to have taken a relentless chokehold on both major parties.)
While one cannot say that this timely decease will totally reverse U.S. policy toward the Palestinians, at least the absence of Adelson’s checkbook and the Kushner influence is likely to stop U.S. Middle East policy from getting worse. And that is the objectively balanced approach to the handover. To finish the quotes, as was said of the United Nations, this inauguration stops us from going to hell but does not necessarily get us to heaven.
Nobody who has followed the sycophancy of leading Democrats like Biden can expect the new administration to do the completely right thing in the Middle East, but we can reasonably foresee Washington expecting Israeli governments to honor their own commitments occasionally. U.S. politicians will still pander to Israel, but possibly the only public service rendered by the Adelson/Kushner/Netanyahu axis is the nausea it generated among most American Jews and even more Democrats. Following in their muddy footsteps, AIPAC’s embrace of the most primitive Zionist nationalism and Trumpism has made opposition to the lobby respectable for previously intimidated Democrats.
One definite change is going to be U.S. policy towards the U.N., which has always suffered collateral damage from Israeli refusal to honor international law. Trump was no ideologue and so did not harbor his allies’ deep-seated theological obsession against the United Nations. No doubt he had an underlying suspicion that his real estate holdings in Manhattan would suffer if the U.N.’s diplomats and staff were pulled out, thus as a small mercy he retained enough contact with reality to eschew ideas of black helicopters ferrying in blue berets to take over the U.S.
Many of the tirades from more liberal pro-Israeli factions have a perverse form of balance. They sincerely want the U.N. to do its work in constructing a rule-based world order, but do not want those rules to apply to Israel (or for that matter to the U.S.). But constant pressure works. As recent Israeli envoys to the U.N. have successfully proved, each footling complaint of bias and anti-Semitism might initially evoke eye rolling and shrugs from everyone, but it has a dampening effect on discourse; U.N. officials and diplomats must be prepared for a flood of complaints if they point out Israel’s manifest breaches of international law. So even countries that have enough tattered shreds of integrity to query Israeli violations, feel the need to “balance” their complaints with commentary about too many one-sided resolutions against the perpetrator or with admonitions about much less frequent “terrorism” on the part of Palestinian factions.
For many years, I have suggested here that there are too many anti-Israeli resolutions and suggested they be consolidated, not diluted. Looking at the success of Israel’s attritional kvetching, I might reconsider and suggest that every Israeli barbarity should appear on the agenda of the various U.N. bodies.
In the meantime, the U.S. is letting the adults into its U.N. room for the first time for some years. The new U.S. Permanent Representative, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is a career diplomat, which after years of lobby pressure and conditioning is no guarantee of probity. But at least her appointment ensures a better and less offensive quality of explanation for inexcusable policies, particularly after the recent string of donor-driven, politically ambitious Trump appointees.
Richard Mills, presently chargé d’affaires during the interregnum, is also a professional and so had to obey orders in the first speech of the Biden administration at the Security Council’s regular meeting on the Middle East. He promised that the U.S. “will maintain its steadfast support for Israel. Under the Biden administration, the U.S. will continue its long-standing policy of opposing one-sided resolutions and other actions in international bodies that unfairly single out Israel.” If one may editorialize, one hopes the new administration does not pursue a policy of conducting one-sided impeachments that unfairly single out former presidents who fomented a putsch on Capitol Hill, or one-sided prosecutions of mass school shooters without looking for potential juvenile delinquents among their victims!
However, the good news is that Mills declared that the U.S. is against Israeli policies such as “annexation of territory, settlement activity [and] demolitions.” Noting that relations with the Palestinians have “atrophied over the last four years,” he said that the United States will support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state. It is pathetic that this is an actual improvement over recent U.S. policy since it is, in fact, a return to the pious fiction that there can be equal negotiations and consent between two parties, when one is a highly subsidized military superpower occupying the other with the aid of the U.S. The United States has recently been using its diplomatic, military, and financial power to peel away any potential allies for the Palestinians under the guise of normalization of relations. The idea of negotiating without reference to international law is like putting a heavyweight boxer in the ring with a paraplegic telling them that the Marquis of Queensberry rules do not apply.
However, let us look on the bright side. The Biden administration seems to be in the process of rejoining or resuming support for the various agencies, which Trump-Kushnerite vindictiveness had cut off. The WHO, UNESCO, and others, particularly UNRWA, seem set to resume funding. But the core to the U.S. resuming its place as one of the founders of the post-War international legal order, is the expedient positions of the Golan Heights, the settlements and East Jerusalem, which hinge on the U.N. premise of the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force. This principle has been overlooked and put on the back burner sometimes over the decades, but until Trump and the Golan Heights and to some extent Jerusalem, followed by Western Sahara, it had never been explicitly disavowed.
Jerusalem is more complex, since the international community’s reticence to build embassies there is due, not so much to its “occupied” status, as to the U.N. partition resolutions that set it aside as a U.N. administered corpus separatum. But the settlements, the Golan, and Western Sahara are unequivocally occupied territories, designated as such by U.N. bodies and international courts.
The Western Sahara is particularly complex in its politics, but the principles are clearer, even if it shows the corrosive effects of the Israeli exception. Morocco occupies the Sahara, builds a separation wall, ignores U.N. demands for self-determination and a referendum, and then effectively traded its formerly covert but now overt relations with Israel to secure Trump recognition of its claims.
Luckily, a Trump tweet is not a binding instrument in international law, and even if it were in a more formal mode, it takes more than a unilateral declaration by a U.S. president to rescind the U.N. Charter and international law. This administration owes absolutely nothing to Adelson, Netanyahu or Kushner. But if the new Biden administration is to be consistent in its support for the U.N. Charter and principles, it has to restate the former U.S. position on the status of those occupied territories. Watch those spaces.
U.N. correspondent Ian Williams is the author of UNtold: the Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War (available from Middle East Books and More).