Barack Obama is not the Israel-basher now

By Robin Shepherd, February 24, 2011
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There is a fascinating detail arising from the American decision to veto last week's UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank as "illegal".

To those who regard the Security Council as the supreme legislative arena for the formulation of international law, it must be questionable whether Israeli settlements can now be called "illegal", since the proposition that they are has just failed to be affirmed. This would suggest that the United Nations is unable to come to a clear decision on the matter, pushing it into a legal no-man's land.

Common sense has always suggested that this is exactly the legal and ethical space that the settlements should occupy, which is why, as we now know from recently leaked documents, the Palestinians have been prepared to concede that practically all the settlements in Jerusalem would become part of Israel under a peace deal.

But it's not just common sense. The legal situation itself has never been as clear cut as participants in the global deligitimisation campaign have often
tried to suggest.

The British Mandate, formalised by the League of Nations in July 1922, allowed for Jewish settlement anywhere west of the Jordan river. Moreover, UN Security Council resolution 242 - the classic land-for-peace formula passed in November 1967 - quite deliberately refused to call on Israel to withdraw from all of the territory occupied in the Six-Day War. That left the question of the precise borders of the state of Israel ambiguous, an ambiguity, it can be argued, that carries through to the status of the settlements.

Of course, the Obama administration's motivations are unlikely to have had much to do with a desire further to muddy the waters on the legal status of the settlements. It seems clear that the Americans were moved instead by a feeling that it would be dangerous and irresponsible to risk fanning the flames of anti-Zionist fanaticism at a time of volatility across the Middle East, a position which contrasts sharply with the reckless disregard shown on the matter by Britain and the remaining members of the Security Council who voted in favour.

Nonetheless, it is a noteworthy irony that an Obama administration widely criticised by Israel's supporters for adopting a pro-Palestinian bias should have done such a sterling job not merely in countering anti-Israeli bigotry at the UN but in simultaneously blunting one of the favourite weapons in the deligitimisers' armoury.

Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs, at the Henry Jackson Society. His book, 'A State Beyond the Pale: Europe's Problem with Israel' is now out in paperback

Last updated: 1:57pm, February 24 2011