While much of the world has been celebrating an extended Christmas weekend, events in Israel have left many heads spinning.
To put it all into perspective, one has to start from the end. On December 28, many Israeli news outlets reported that the Israel's attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, has approved the interrogation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in two cases in which he is being accused of corruption and bribery.
These cases have been bubbling under the surface for the past few months. While details remain sparse, many of Netanyahu's top aides from the past few years have been interrogated over the course of the last few months.
This last fact might explain the context behind Netanyahu’s reaction to the U.N. Security Council vote on Friday night that has confounded many.
First, Netanyahu recalled Israel's ambassadors from New Zealand and Senegal—i.e., two of the sponsors of the latest U.N. resolution. Then Netanyahu canceled the visit of the Ukrainian prime minister, and shortly thereafter cancelled his scheduled meeting with the prime minister of the U.K.
Next, Netanyahu ordered his ministers not to visit any of the countries who voted in favor of the resolution. After which, he called on all of the representatives of the countries who voted for the resolution for a meeting—on Christmas Day—“to explain themselves.”
Finally, Netanyahu and his Republican strategist (oh, apologies, I meant our ambassador to the U.S.) are directly blaming President Barack Obama for the resolution, supported by a whole procession of his Likud party ministers all denouncing Obama for “stabbing Israel in the back.”
Ambassador Ron Dermer went one step further, asserting that Israel would share the intelligence it has with the incoming U.S. administration on how President Obama is directly responsible for the passing of the resolution.
An Israeli ambassador publicly proclaiming that Israel is collecting intelligence on any American president is simply astounding. Furthermore, waging a full-fledged frontal-assault on a president who is leaving office with one of the highest approval ratings in modern history is suicidal, in the long run.
On Wednesday night, Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Israeli criticism by giving a 70-minute speech on why the United States did not veto the U.N. Security Council resolution—along with his vision for an eventual peace agreement.
In his speech, Kerry vehemently denied that the U.S. was behind the U.N. resolution—as claimed by the Israeli government. He spent a significant portion of the speech explaining why the Israeli expansion of settlements was bad.
In addition, the secretary of state made crystal clear—stating a number of times—that while ending the settlements would not bring about peace, continued expansion of settlements would doom a two-state solution and thus doom Israel as a democratic and Jewish state.
Kerry asserted something in his speech which is obvious to most Israeli observers: that the actions of the current Israeli government are controlled by its most extreme elements—in this case, the party of MK Naftali Bennett, who Kerry quoted twice, criticizing Bennett's celebration of the end of the era of the two-state solution.
Kerry clarified that he did not think the time was ripe to achieve a peace agreement now. Nevertheless, he went on to state his six principles for achieving a permanent peace—when the time is right.
These points are: (1) A solution to the refugee problem that does not include a physical return to Israel; (2) recognized of Israel as the Jewish state; 3) an end to the conflict; (4) land-swaps based on 67 borders, with a strong security arrangement for Israel; (5) peace with the rest of the Arab world; and (6) Jerusalem as a shared capital.
The final point is the only one that is in any way problematic to Israelis. To any Israeli, from the center to the left-wing, Kerry delivered what seemed like a very pro-Israel speech. As former Prime Minister Ehud Barak stated this evening: “Powerful, lucid speech. The world and the majority in Israel think the same. Bibi, on verge of messianic abyss, is determined to go forward.”
Netanyahu responded to Kerry's speech an hour later, calling it one-sided and obsessive about the settlements, ignoring the heart of the conflict—the unwillingness of the Palestinians to accept the Jewish state.
Of course, Netanyahu was right that Kerry spent more time focusing on the settlements than addressing Palestinian refusals. However, Kerry was clear that he was not trying to bring about peace; he was trying to stop actions that would render making peace impossible.
Netanyahu, in his response, had to go on the offensive against the Obama administration one last time by saying:
We have it on absolute, incontestable evidence that the United States organized, advanced and brought this resolution to the U.N.S.C. We will share this information with the incoming administration, some of it is sensitive, it's all true.
Netanyahu is no doubt counting down the minutes until President-elect Trump takes office. Trump tweeted, a few hours before the Kerry speech:
We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!
It is reasonable to question why—with all that is going on in the world today—the U.N. cares about the issue of illegal building in territory conquered by Israel in 1967. By all accounts, the world should have more important things to worry about.
The U.N. obsession with Israel is a very real problem. However, as I wrote in a previous piece (two weeks ago), Netanyahu urged his ministers not to support a new law the arrangements bill that would retroactively legalize the seizure of Palestinian lands, warning it would end in censure through a U.N. resolution, or a trial in the Hague (International court of Justice).
A few days later, because of his internal political calculations, Netanyahu decided to support the arrangements law, which then passed the Knesset in its first reading. So why the surprise? Kerry stated in Wednesday night's speech that one of the reasons the U.S. abstained was the new “Arrangements Bill” that the U.S. (and the settlers) see as a step toward annexation.
There is very little unique in the new U.N. resolution. It merely reaffirms the stated opinion of the international community—i.e., that building homes on land captured in 1967 is illegal and calls on Israel to halt such building. Some Israeli legal experts dispute this interpretation of international law, however, they have been in the minority.
The resolution calls on nation-states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967.” The Israeli government fears that this resolution might become an impetus to revive the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
What angers Israelis most, is the resolution's reference to “East Jerusalem,” in the same manner as the rest of the area captured in 1967. Israel annexed Jerusalem in 1967 and many Israelis cannot imagine that our sovereignty over the Western Wall—Judaism's most holy site—could be questioned.
Kerry underscored that there was nothing new whatsoever in the resolution, and that in his mind Israel’s connection to the Old City of Jerusalem would have to be part of any peace agreement.
This latest U.N. resolution is clearly dangerous to Israel in that it is the clearest statement of the views of the international community on the legality of the settlements. Critics have said the resolution will be impede the peace process, but, as Kerry stated, there is no peace process at the moment.
If there is ever a peace agreement, however, it will look very much like the plan Kerry outlined, and the U.N. Security Council resolution will not change that.
The majority of Israelis support the idea of two-state solution. More than half of Israelis do not want to keep occupying Palestinians in the West Bank. But just as many have no idea how to bring the conflict to an end.
Israelis have no reason to believe that after over 100 years of opposing our existence here, Palestinians will suddenly be willing to accept it. Previous unilateral withdrawals from South Lebanon and Gaza have resulted in missile barrages, instead of peace.
At the same time, Palestinians, who have watched Israeli physical control over what was once Mandate Palestine continue to expand, have no reason to believe that Israelis will be willing to stop expanding their presence.
There are still millions of refugees from 1948 (600,000 who left in 1948 and 1949 have grown into millions over the years, since Palestinians are the only refugees in the world who inherit their refugee status), to whom no one is willing to tell the truth: that they will never return to their homes that are now parts of Tel Aviv, Haifa or other integral parts of Israel.
Kerry was right that the settlers and their political leaders in the Bayit Hayehudi party have had a clear goal of making a political settlement that includes a two-state solution impossible. Because of Israel’s unique political system, the Bayit Hayehudi wields greater political power than they deserve based on their actual support.
The result, instead of ordering the police to remove the settlers from the illegal Amona settlement as demanded by the Israeli Supreme Court, was that the government spent months trying to find a solution acceptable to the settlers.
After months of negotiations, the only proposal they could come up with was so patently illegal (both under Israeli and International the law) that the Israeli government's own attorney-general said he could not defend the decision.
The prevailing opinion, on the streets of Tel Aviv, is that Netanyahu had gone way too far in his attacks on all those who supported the resolution and that this might finally endanger his support among his devotees.
When pressed, however, those same people could only shrug and acknowledge that it's unclear if anything Netanyahu does will actually dent his support. The potential that he could be indicted, of course, could change everything.
This is an amended, expanded and updated version of Marc Schulman’s Tel Aviv Diary published on December 28.