Over the past week, differences between Israel and the United States have boiled over into a scalding diplomatic confrontation between these closest of allies. The dispute reflects not any change in American policy, but a dangerous evolution in Israeli policy, under the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, away from an acceptance of a negotiated two-state resolution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. The dispute also arises from Mr. Netanyahu’s lamentable practice of making his government a more nakedly partisan player in American politics than any foreign government in memory, save Russia.
It is hard to see how either move by this Israeli government serves Israel’s long-term interest.
The spark for this confrontation was a United Nations Security Council resolution, adopted on Friday, that condemned Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The Obama administration chose to abstain from the vote rather than exercise its veto to block it. The United Nations is shamefully biased against Israel, and President Obama has used the American veto and its diplomatic muscle more assiduously than any previous American president to shield Israel from unwarranted criticism. But nowhere is it written that an American president is obliged to shelter Israel from international criticism that is consistent with decades-old American policy and with American interests.
The American abstention has triggered more than the usual amount of outrage, name-calling and threats from Mr. Netanyahu and his allies. Personalizing the dispute to an astonishing degree, they have accused Mr. Obama of betraying Israel.
They’re wrong. Many of Mr. Netanyahu’s accusations and those of his supporters misrepresent the history of Israeli-American relations, malign Mr. Obama and his secretary of state, John Kerry, and confuse what should be a serious debate over the future of a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which seems further away every day. With less than three weeks before Mr. Obama leaves office, Mr. Kerry on Wednesday finally gave the speech he wanted to give two years ago — a passionate, blunt and detailed warning about why the two-state solution is in jeopardy and how it might yet be salvaged before incalculable damage is done to Israel and the region.
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Inconveniently for Mr. Netanyahu’s claim that the Security Council resolution was the result of perfidy by Mr. Obama, the measure was adopted 14 to 0, with support from Russia, China and Egypt, among others. It declared that the settlements, in territory that Israel captured from Jordan during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, have no legal validity; affirming longstanding United Nations and American policy, it cited the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, which prohibits any occupying power from transferring its own people to conquered territory.
The most politically volatile feature of the new resolution was that it explicitly condemned Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu has emphasized that the language did not distinguish between Jerusalem and the West Bank and hence treated the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, as occupied territory.
Under any negotiated solution to the conflict, Israelis expect their capital to be Jerusalem. But Palestinians also expect to have areas of Jerusalem as their capital, and to have access to Muslim holy sites there. That is why this resolution did not represent a change in the position of the United Nations, which has referred to Jerusalem in many such statements backed by past American administrations. Under Mr. Obama, the United States continues to subscribe to the position enshrined in the 1993 Oslo accords that the future of Jerusalem, like that of the West Bank, should be decided through negotiation — not by diktat by either side.
Settlements represent such a diktat.
Anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t looked at the map or studied the history of the settlement movement. Right-wing Israeli settlers have been quite open for decades about their patient approach to claiming Jerusalem and the West Bank by strategically placing settlements to prevent the creation of a viable Palestinian state. Since 2009, when Mr. Obama took office, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank has grown to around 400,000, a gain of more than 100,000, and the number of settlers in East Jerusalem has grown to roughly 208,000, from 193,000, according to Americans for Peace Now. During the same period, construction has begun on over 12,700 settlement units on the West Bank.
Supporters of Mr. Netanyahu argue that Mr. Obama has now only inflamed the Israeli right and encouraged more settlement-building, as if this Israeli government would otherwise show restraint. This is the cynical logic of the settlement movement: When the world is silent, Israel can build settlements; when the world objects, Israel must build settlements. Under any scenario, settlements will grow, and the possibility of a two-state solution will recede.
Settlements are certainly not the only impediment, or even the principal one, to negotiations today. The Palestinians remain divided and their leadership malicious or hapless, with Hamas, which advocates terrorism, reigning in the Gaza Strip, while the Palestinian Authority, rife with corruption, governs ineptly in the West Bank. But the settlements are an obstacle to any eventual deal, and they are Israel’s responsibility.
For a long time, Mr. Netanyahu gave lip service to a Palestinian state. But there is no longer any room for illusion. Mr. Netanyahu recently described his government as “more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history,” and Naftali Bennett, one of his coalition partners, declared that “the era of the two-state solution is over.” Mr. Netanyahu’s own United Nations ambassador, as Mr. Kerry noted on Wednesday, rejects that solution, too.
What could be the endgame, if it does not include a Palestinian state? Mr. Kerry warned that without a two-state solution, Israel faces a choice between being a Jewish state and a democracy. If Israel annexes the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, this logic goes, Palestinians, many of whom are Muslims, would become the majority in the resulting state of Israel. At that point, Israelis could give these Palestinians full rights as citizens, thus diluting the Jewish character of their nation, or deny them rights and forsake democracy.
But the Israeli far right has long imagined a different scenario: Egypt would be somehow induced to take control of the Gaza Strip, while Israel would hold most of the West Bank and somehow offload the bulk of its Palestinian residents into Jordan. Jerusalem, presumably, would be entirely under Israeli control.
This one-state solution may remain a fantasy, but it’s gathering adherents. In an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal on Monday, John Bolton, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former American ambassador to the United Nations, advanced just this scenario. Mr. Bolton is said to be on President-elect Donald Trump’s list as a possible deputy secretary of state.
Mr. Obama has stayed true to the values and policy aims that American administrations have held across the decades for the Middle East, but Mr. Trump has signaled that a major change is coming. He has already appointed to the post of ambassador to Israel a settlement advocate who is, if anything, to Mr. Netanyahu’s right.
If Mr. Trump envisions working with Israel’s extreme right to foreclose the dream of a Palestinian state, he envisions a tragic future indeed, one in which Israel is likely to never have the peace and security that it deserves.