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Netanyahu's big gamble

The UN vote was not binding, and international opposition to settlements is no surprise. So why did Bibi go ballistic?

    Benjamin Netanyahu has embarked on a grand gamble. He is wagering that in 2016 the international order changed to such an extent that it rendered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict irrelevant. 
    Last Thursday, it seemed he had bet on the right horse. The Egyptian government, which had originally tabled the United Nations Security Council resolution against the settlements, removed the proposal from the agenda. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with some pressure from the incoming Trump administration, calculated it would be more to his advantage to sit this one out. The Friday morning headlines in Israel’s newspapers described Mr Netanyahu’s diplomatic wizardry in overcoming the eternally hostile UN.
    A few hours later, as four other Security Council members took up the proposal in Egypt’s place, it all started to go wrong. 
    A last-minute attempt to delay the vote, with discreet Russian backing, failed and the resolution passed overwhelmingly. The Prime Minister’s personal connections with General al-Sisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to prevent their representatives from voting in favour. As did two of Israel’s main European allies, Britain and France, and other countries with which ties had ostensibly improved in recent years, such as Japan, Ukraine, Senegal and Angola. The final blow came from the US, which had been quietly supporting the resolution behind the scenes. The administration’s decision to abstain was more devastating than the votes in favour by the other 14 UNSC members. For the first time in Barack Obama’s presidency, the US refrained from vetoing a resolution censuring Israel. Four weeks before his departure from the White House, this was his parting gift to the Netanyahu government. 
    This outcome is not so unexpected. Every previous US administration has let a number of UNSC resolutions against Israel’s policies pass without vetoing them. Under President Obama, every similar resolution in the last eight years was vetoed. At the very end of his presidency, however, after signing a new $38bn military aid deal with Israel, it was only natural that he would also make some gesture in the Palestinians’ direction, especially given that the subject of the resolution was settlements, which his administration has always clearly opposed. 
    On Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in Washington in which he argued the UN resolution was meant to protect the two-state solution. He said: “The two-state solution is the only one to achieve a just and lasting peace. It is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic country… it is the only way to ensure a future of freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people and it is an important way of advancing US interests in the Middle East.”
    Mr Kerry called Mr Netanyahu’s coalition the “most right wing in Israel’s history,” adding that its agenda was driven by the “most extreme elements.
    “Netanyahu’s government policy is more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history leading… to one state.”
     Despite the apparent setback at the UN, Mr Netanyahu believes the goalposts are moving, and in his favour. 
    Only 10 days before the UNSC vote, standing at the Nevatim air force base where new American F-35 fighters had just landed, the Prime Minister publicly thanked Mr Obama for his commitment to Israel’s security. Now Mr Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry were being accused by “senior officials” of having pushed an “anti-Israel” resolution and cabinet members like Culture Minister Miri Regev were accusing the President of “having done nothing for Israel”. The message was clear: as far as Israel is concerned, Donald Trump was already in power. 
    But the Israeli response was not restricted to trashing the Obama team. The countries that voted in favour of the resolution were targeted with diplomatic reprisals. 
    The government announced that the African countries involved would no longer enjoy Israeli participation in local agricultural projects. Mr Netanyahu warned the New Zealand Foreign Minister that a vote in favour would be tantamount to war. And meetings with senior ministers from other countries were cancelled, including one that was planned to take place in three weeks between Mr Netanyahu and Prime Minister Theresa May at the World Economic Forum in Davos. 
     “I don’t see why anyone is acting surprised,” said a veteran Israeli diplomat. “We have great relations with the UK and Theresa May is hugely pro-Israel, but the issue of settlements is simply one on which we don’t see eye to eye”.
    So why did the Netanyahu government go ballistic over the UNSC resolution? There are three possible answers, and there is probably truth in all three. 
    The first is that Mr Netanyahu believes that, with Mr Obama gone, he will be operating in a new diplomatic landscape. The Trump administration is expected to have a very different policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank and the settlements. And with the main European governments forced to focus on internal issues in 2017  — Britain on Brexit and France and Germany on difficult election campaigns — he believes Israel will actually face less diplomatic pressure. So he can get away now with a mini-escalation. 
    Interestingly, no anger was directed at Russia, which also voted in favour. Mr Netanyahu last week instructed Israel’s diplomats to stay away from a debate on war crimes in Syria, which is expected to yield serious accusations against Mr Putin’s regime. A day later, following a phone conversation between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Putin, Russia’s UN envoy tried unsuccessfully to delay the Security Council vote. While a mini-crisis with the Western nations is something Mr Netanyahu believes he can afford at this point, the Kremlin is another matter.
    The second explanation is that, while the UNSC resolution did not include any operational recommendations, save a periodic report on settlements to the UN Secretary General, Mr Netanyahu is still concerned it could encourage the Palestinians to seek sanctions against Israel or initiate proceedings at the International Criminal Court. 
    This seems unlikely in the present diplomatic climate: given Israel’s increasingly robust economic and security ties across the globe, international isolation is an empty threat. Still, the prime minister may have felt a more forceful response was necessary to ward off any threats. 
    A third explanation may reside closer to home. The Israeli diplomatic campaign could very well have been orchestrated for the benefit of the Prime Minister’s Israeli constituency. Two of the corruption “probes” being conducted by the police into Mr Netanyahu’s financial affairs are set to become full-blown investigations.
    A crisis with “hostile” foreign governments could serve as a useful distraction from domestic problems. 
    Whatever the real reason for this uncharacteristic response, one thing is clear: the diplomatic parameters of Israel’s relations with the world and the diplomatic dynamics of the conflict with the Palestinians are about to be radically shaken up.
     

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