Netanyahu’s Policies Do Not Help Israel

November 1, 2011
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Stephen Zunes

Steve Sheffey is certainly correct in recognizing the counterproductive ramifications of anti-United Nations efforts by the Republicans and in defending the Obama administration from attacks by the far right that falsely accuse him of not defending Israel. Unfortunately, he falls into the same trap as the Republicans he criticizes by accepting much of the narrative of Israel’s current right-wing government and by supporting Washington’s defense of that government. While it is certainly appropriate to acknowledge and challenge the anti-Israel bias often found in the U.N. and elsewhere, he flips to the other extreme by embracing an anti-Palestine bias.

For example, Sheffey refers to an otherwise-unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution vetoed by the Obama administration last February as being “biased” and “anti-Israel.” The draft resolution, however, simply called on both Israelis and Palestinians to act on the basis of international law, other obligations, and previous agreements; to help advance the peace process through confidence-building measures and continued negotiations on final status issues; and for regional actors and the international community to support the peace process. The resolution specifically reaffirmed previous U.N. Security Council resolutions acknowledging that Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands occupied since the June 1967 war are illegal and constitute a major obstacle to peace, and it called on Israel to cease additional settlement activity in Palestinian areas.1

Groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now had encouraged President Obama not to veto the resolution, as did prominent Israeli liberals writing in the Jerusalem Post and Haaretz.2 The illegality of the settlements is beyond question: Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — to which both Israel and the United States are signatories — specifically prohibits any occupying power from transferring any part of its civilian population onto lands seized by military force. The convention’s application to the West Bank and East Jerusalem is explicitly acknowledged in U.N. Security Council resolutions 446, 452, 465, and 471, and in a 2004 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice.

Sheffey also defends Obama’s effort to quash the report of the panel that investigated possible war crimes by both Hamas and the Israeli government during the December 2008-January 2009 conflict, even though the findings of the investigation — led by eminent pro-Israel South African jurist Richard Goldstone — were critical of both sides and were consistent with those of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other reputable human rights groups.3 The illegal attacks on civilian areas by both sides are well-documented, and little can be accomplished by suppressing this reality.

Sheffey presumably believes the U.N. was correct back in 1949 in accepting Israel as a member state without insisting that it first negotiate an agreement with the Arab states regarding the Palestinian refugees. By contrast, he defends Obama’s insistence that Palestine be allowed U.N. membership only after reaching an agreement with Israel, whose current government appears to be willing to grant the Palestinians only a series of non-contiguous cantons surrounded by a Greater Israel.

There is no question that an anti-Israel bias exists in some U.N. agencies and that the Obama administration has been right to vigorously challenge such abuses of the U.N. process. However, just as Israel should not be unfairly held to a higher standard than other countries, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansionist and militaristic policies should not be defended when they indeed violate international legal norms — particularly given the ways in which they weaken Palestinian moderates, embolden extremists, and make a negotiated peace impossible. But defending the Obama administration’s opposition to the enforcement of international legal standards because the violator happens to be a U.S. ally, defending policies of Netanyahu’s government that may threaten Israel’s legitimate security interests, and defaming those of us who challenge these policies, does neither Israel nor the United States any favor.


2 See, Ami Kaufman, “America’s role in the region is finished,” Jerusalem Post, Feb. 20, 2011 and Gideon Levy, “With settlement resolution veto, Obama has joined Likud,” Haaretz, Feb. 20, 2011.


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Stephen Zunes, a contributing editor of Tikkun, is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern studies.

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