The law recently approved by the Israeli Knesset, reaffirming that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, sparked a heated controversy not only inside Israel but also throughout the world. Some of the things that have been said about this law though, are inaccurate and, therefore, it is necessary to carefully analyze what the law is really about as well as the reasons behind its approval.
First of all, it is important to understand that, unlike the United States, Israel does not have a written Constitution. But it does have a number of “basic” laws, which have been given a “quasi-Constitutional” status over the years. The recently approved Nation-State Law is one of them.
Until this law was enacted, there was no legislation in Israel referring to Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. But what exactly does this means?
Actually, this is nothing but the basic principle of Zionism and the very foundation of the creation of the state of Israel. It means that Israel is the realization of the right of self-determination of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. It also means that it is the place that every Jew in the world can call home, and where any Jew can go to in case of persecution.
This concept is also the basis of the almost universally supported two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the United Nations General Assembly recommended, back in 1947, the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish, this is exactly what it had in mind. Israel was always meant to be the nation-state of the Jewish people.
So what is it that bothers some about this law? Many believe that the inclusion of the "Jewish" character of the state in a basic law could have a detrimental effect on the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, particularly the Arab minority, which today constitutes 20 percent of the population. But the truth is that Israel has always defined itself as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and this has never affected the individual rights of its non-Jewish citizens. This is so because Israel is not only a Jewish state but also a democratic one and, therefore, all Israeli citizens have the same individual rights, regardless of race or religion.
What is also important to understand is that when we refer to Israel as a Jewish state, the word “Jewish” does not refer so much to religion but to a much broader concept: the concept of Jewish “nation.” In this regard, to say that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people is no different than saying that Spain is the nation-state of the Spanish people or France the nation-state of the French. And in fact, unlike many other states, Israel does not have an official religion.
But why is it that the Israelis felt the need to translate this concept into a law? The answer probably lies in the fact that today, more than ever, many Israelis feel that the Jewish identity of the state is under attack. There is a movement, led by the Palestinians but supported by many around the world, which seeks to delegitimize Israel’s existence. They say they are in favor of a two-state solution but categorically refuse to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people. In other words, they seek to establish a Palestinian state but want Israel to stop being a Jewish one.
This is so because they promote the so-called "right of return" of the Palestinian refugees to what is now the state of Israel. And by Palestinian refugees they not only mean the surviving refugees of Israel’s 1948 war of independence but also their paternal-line descendants, numbering today more than five million people.
Naturally, the “right of return” is something that no Israeli government would ever accept, as it would mean the end of Israel as a majority Jewish state. The Palestinian refugee problem (a problem that started because the Arab countries decided to fight a war against the newly created state, Israel, with the intention of annihilating it) has to be resolved inside the future Palestinian state, in the same way the problem of the Jewish refugees (who were expelled from the Arab countries where they had lived for generations when Israel was born) was resolved mostly inside Israel. (It is estimated that the original Palestinian refugees were about 700,000 while the Jewish refugees were approximately 800,000).
But the right of return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel is fully supported by the United Nations, as the current debate on UNRWA (the United Nations Refugee and Works Agency) underscored. While UNHCR, the U.N. agency that deals with all the other refugees of the world, strives to reduce the number of refugees by resettling them in the countries that received them (when repatriation is not possible), UNRWA does not try to resettle the Palestinian refugees. It maintains that, until a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached, their refugee “status” should not only continue indefinitely but also pass from generation to generation. It is for this reason that today, the children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the original refugees are still considered “refugees” by UNRWA, and the U.N. continues to promote their return to Israel.
The recent decision of the Trump Administration to stop the funding of UNRWA was, in this regard, a step in the right direction. The "right of return" that this entity promotes (a “right” that has no real basis in international law) constitutes today the single most important obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.
But UNRWA is not the only problematic U.N. entity when it comes to this issue. The Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People (which was created by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975, together with the infamous resolution that declared that Zionism was equal to racism), and the Division for Palestinian Rights (which was established within the U.N. Secretariat in 1977 to assist the Committee) are two entities that actively promote the right of return while engaging in the most radical anti-Israel propaganda activity throughout the year, in the name of the U.N. The funding for these entities is renewed – year after year – by the U.N. General Assembly and is something that should be disrupted.
All of these clearly explain why so many Israelis felt the need to secure the Jewish character of the state through the enactment of a basic law. It was clearly a reaction to the increasing attempts to transform Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, into another Arab state. It was also a reaction to some of the decisions of the Israeli Supreme Court, which have been perceived by many as not safeguarding the Jewish character of the state.
Many well-intentioned critics though, feel that the law is missing two important words, which, in their view, would not detract from all that is right about it. After a thorough analysis of the text, I agree that perhaps the words democracy and equality should have been mentioned, even when these concepts are already enshrined in Israel’s brilliant declaration of independence and also embodied in other basic laws. Because this is a law that defines Israel’s identity, it might have been advisable to mention not only its Jewish character but also its democratic nature. This would have made the Druze minority, for example, feel less uneasy, and the law would have probably gathered wider support at the Knesset.
Having said that, the international criticism of the law was absolutely out of proportion, as is often the case with every piece of news that involves Israel. Israel has been accused of racism and apartheid, and there were outrageous comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. All of these characterizations of Israel are nothing but vicious manifestations of anti-Semitism. Israel, with all of its flaws and imperfections, is an extraordinary democracy, the only true democracy in the Middle East, and this will not change with the enactment of this law.
Adriana Camisar is B’nai B’rith International's Special Advisor on Latin American Affairs. A native of Argentina, Camisar is an attorney by training and holds a Master’s degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.
Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (People's Council –May 14, 1948)
"… We, members of the People's Council … hereby declare the establishment of the Jewish State in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel … The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience and culture."
British Mandate for Palestine (Council of the League of Nations – July 24, 1922)
"Where as the Principal Allied Powers have already agreed that the Mandatory shall be responsible for putting into effect the [Balfour Declaration] … and whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection for the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country… the Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home … and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion… The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudice, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage …. close settlements by Jews, on the land, including state lands and waste lands not required for public purposes."
Sam Remo Resolution (Four Principal Allied Powers of World War I – April 25, 1920)
"… The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on Nov. 2, 1917, by the British government and adapted by the Allied Powers in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine…"
Balfour Declaration (His Majesties Government – Nov. 2, 1947)
"… His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…"
United Nations Special Committee on Palestine Report, adapted as UN Partition Plan for Palestine (UN General Assembly, Nov. 29 1947)
"Palestine within its present borders… shall be constituted into an independent Arab State, an independent Jewish State, and the city of Jerusalem…"
Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (Knesset, March 17, 1992)
"Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free; these rights shall be upheld in the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel. The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state".
Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People (Knesset, July 19, 2018)
"The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established. The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People in which it realizes its national, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People … The State shall be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the Exiles… The State views the development of Jewish settlements as a national value, and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening…"
I chose to open this article with quotes from the instruments of the international community that set the foundation for the creation of the State of Israel and the Declaration of Independence, in order to re-establish the obvious — that Israel was always conceived as the nation-state of the Jewish people; not a bi-national or multicultural state devoid of any controlling identity and purpose and whose failure across Western Europe is now clear. In such a state, affirmative action for a small, persecuted minority — in the region — the Jews, should not raise such hackles.
Yet, the Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People (the Law), has engendered more vociferous debate and demonstrations than any legislation passed by the Knesset in recent memory, surpassing by far the recent surrogacy and IDF draft laws that also tackle significant moral and national issues. Not only has it galvanized Diaspora Jewish sentiment — on both sides of the isle — but it has raised from relative slumber Israel's most loyal minority — the Druze, whose religious and political leaders have very publicly declared war on the Law, in addition to leaders of the Bedouin minority, many of whose members serve in the IDF. Nearly a month after being passed, even massive Hamas rockets attacks and the specter of another retaliatory Israeli ground offensive have not changed the level of discourse about the Law.
Last Wednesday's special Knesset debate, called despite the summer recess, offered another opportunity for both sides to restate their positions. Newly-elected Opposition leader Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) who sees opposition to the Law as a strong rallying point in the next election, whenever they are held, excoriated Prime Minster Netanyahu for the "damage [the Law] is causing to the values of equality and democracy."
Arguing that it runs counter to the Declaration of Independence and causes undue strife, she challenged him to immediately call elections that would serve as a referendum for the Law. Ahmad Tibi (Joint [Arab] List), who has accused Israel of being an Apartheid state, slammed the Law for anchoring a classification of citizens. Citizens who have everything are raised above other groups, a collective with high status, and below that is everyone who isn't Jewish and has no rights. Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid accused the prime minister of "eroding one value after another" — this time the value of friendship with regard to the Druze.
Offering a rebuttal on behalf of the government, Minister Zeev Elkin explained that just like the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty took principals from the Declaration of Independence, and anchored them as Basic Law, so too does the Jewish Nation State Law. "Just as the rights of the individual were entrenched [in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty], we are making sure that the picture is in balance … When you go over the law article by article, there is nothing here that someone who still has a grain of Zionism in him could disagree with … [The] vast majority of the Israeli public is Zionist and is not ashamed of the fact that we are the nation state of the Jewish people."
The Law was first proposed nine years ago to fill a legal void left by the passage of a series of Basic Laws (that make up Israel's piecemeal constitution) that determined the powers of the three branches of government, assured the freedom of occupation, human dignity and liberty but did not establish the identity and purpose of the state — a cornerstone of any constitution.
Already back in 1948 the High Court of Justice found that the Declaration of Independence — that eloquently established Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people while assuring personal and religious freedoms and rights to all its citizens — has no constitutional or legal consequence. Furthermore, iconic and long-serving Supreme Court President Aharon Barak declared in 1995 that the two Basic Laws passed in 1992 — Freedom of Occupation and Human Dignity and Liberty — laid the foundation for a "constitutional revolution," appropriating the right of judicial review of all Knesset legislation in the light of these two Basic Laws.
Furthermore, when Jewish and democratic values collide — both of which appear as foundations of the Human Dignity and Liberty Basic Law — Barak ruled that the court would interpret the Jewish value with the highest level of abstraction, meaning — according to Tel Aviv University lecturer Emmanuel Navon — that it shall be ignored. This judicial revolution had very practical impact, as Barak's court and those that followed in his image, decided in favor of an Arab petitioner who sought to purchase a home in a village established by the Jewish Agency for Jews, but that a Jew could not purchase land in a Bedouin village, and has struck down dozens of other laws and amendments, some of which were showcase legislation for the government dealing with the illegal migrants and Haredi draft.
This judicial activism by the court irked many legal and political conservatives who accuse the court of being an unelected bastion of the Left that has won only two general elections since 1977 and is therefore out of touch with the majority of Israel society today. The Basic Law now gives the court — which is evolving into a more ideologically balanced bench under the hand of Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked — the tool to rule that the Jewish character of the state can rightfully take precedent over demands that the Jewish flag, anthem, calendar, immigration, settlement and Jerusalem should be replaced with an all-inclusive alternative.
On the issue of Arabic as an official language, this dates to an archaic Mandatory law dating back to 1922 which actually established English as the predominant of three official languages, alongside Arabic and Hebrew. When the official status of English was abolished as part of the first act of the provisional Knesset in 1948 immediately after Independence, Hebrew and Arabic remained as equal official languages. The Basic Law recognizes the fact that Hebrew is the leading language in Israel but assures Arabic a "special status." Furthermore, the law states that setting Hebrew as the state's sole "official" language "does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect."
Also, as David Hazony points out in a recent Forward article, the Jewish State Law communicates favorably with constitutions and laws of ethnically and historically based democracies across Europe where the nation of nation and state are well understood and entrenched, as opposed to the United States where it understandably is not, even among many Jews in relation to Israel.
So in light of all this, why the outcry now that the principle of a Jewish state has been codified in actionable legislation? Demonstrators at Saturday night's anti-law rally at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square may have provided the answer. Chanting the Palestinian rallying call for violence against the State of Israel ("with spirit, with blood, we shall redeem you, Palestine") while waving the Palestinian flag (which, according to professor Eli Carmon, is a version of the rejectionist pan-Arab flag that symbolizes rejection of everything but Islam, these Israeli citizens showed that like many across the Arab world they are yet to come to terms with Israel as a Jewish state and still seek to "redeem" it — all of it — even 70 years later, through violence.
Speakers at the rally — organized by the "High Monitoring Committee for Arab Citizens of Israel" all supported the notion that Israel become “a state of all its citizens” — a specter that the leadership of the Arab minority and some in the Radical Jewish Left have actively promoted over the past decades, as reflected in the four "Arab vision" papers published in 2006 and 2007 by Arab civil society organizations, alongside support for the "Right to Return" by millions of Palestinian refugees and their decedents that together would put a quick end to the Jewish state. Many Israelis fear that these are the true sentiments held by many Israeli Muslim citizens, and has had a numbing effect on genuine efforts at civic co-existence and integration.
Two major questions remain: First, how to placate the loyal minorities who — looking at the plight of minorities across the Middle East — recognizes that their personal and collective future is inexorably linked to continued Jewish control of Israel. This is particularly true of the Druze who, since Israel's independence, have served the state bravely and with distinction. Netanyahu has taken their concerns — that have lead to threats by Druze diplomats and officers to resign their posts in protest — to heart and has already made a number of proposals, including special legislation to recognize the status of the community, grants for programs etc. while not conceding on the integrity of the Law.
Another tack the prime minister could take to recognize the significant increase in Christian enlistment in the IDF could be to acquiesce to petitions to establish a community in the North for indigenous Christians who have utilized the new nationality option in the Citizens Registry and have as Arameans.
Finally, the prime minister will have to find the right words to explain to segments of the American Jewish population that while Israel cherishes their support, they should not be mistaken that Israel was created in the image of the multicultural United States melting pot (a notion that is failing in many Western European countries, reeling from the results of mass Middle Eastern and North African immigration). Instead, Israel should be celebrated universally by the American Jewish community as having prevailed as "a villa in the jungle" (a term coined by Ehud Barak) for seven decades against all odds and for providing the best chance for Jewish survival into the future.
Last week, the American veto stopped yet another dangerously misguided U.N. Security Council resolution from passing. The resolution was tabled by Kuwait, the current non-permanent member of the council from the Arab states. The U.S. was the only state to vote against it, but the resolution was unbalanced enough that four other states (Ethiopia, the Netherlands, Poland and the U.K.) on the 15-member council also chose not to support it, and abstain. A resolution needs nine votes to pass, as long as none of the permanent member of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) votes against it, so this resolution was close to failure on its own, but it did require a U.S. veto in the end.
The resolution was typical of what comes out of the U.N. whenever aggressive provocations by Palestinian terrorist groups lead to a crisis situation. Israel was roundly condemned for defending Israeli citizens and soldiers against Palestinian rioters — often Hamas fighters — trying to storm the border and murder Jews. Hamas was never mentioned by name in the resolution; neither was Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which only days earlier had launched a barrage of rockets toward Israeli communities near Gaza, a situation which could have easily spiraled into yet another war. The resolution does deplore rocket launches from Gaza, but the way it is worded it sounds as if the rockets are magically launching themselves. There is no actor responsible for the terrorism. Some states criticized this lack of naming-and-shaming terrorist groups, but shamefully voted for the resolution nonetheless.
The U.S. proposed a resolution that would have condemned Hamas by name at the same council session. Unfortunately, the U.S. stood alone in voting for it. Russia, Kuwait and Bolivia voted against and the rest of the council abstained, many complaining that enough time was not given to negotiate on the text to “balance” it. In U.N. terms, balance is only achieved when Israel is viciously criticized for defending itself and Palestinian terrorist groups are either ignored or are lumped in on calls for restraint by “both sides.”
Beyond this phenomenon, which — sadly — appears all too often at U.N. bodies, this resolution was notable for its efforts to create an international protection mechanism for Palestinians. The resolution would not have created the mechanism, but rather started the process: it called on the U.N. Secretary-General to report back on recommendations for such a mechanism. Such a mechanism would be unhelpful in the extreme, and Israel would never allow it, especially given the history of ineffectual international missions being stationed between Israel and its neighbors.
In Sinai, U.N. forces withdrew at Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser’s demand as Egypt and other Arab countries moved in on Israel in what turned out to be another failed attempt to annihilate Israel. In Syria, the U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights fled early in the Syrian civil war. European Union observers on the Gaza border also fled after the Hamas coup in 2007. Finally, in Lebanon, the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has not lifted a finger to stop the growing Hezbollah arsenal of thousands of rockets pointing at Israel. Israel knows that in these sensitive areas, only Israel can provide for its own security. An “international mechanism” would only put Israeli (and, ultimately, Palestinian) lives in greater peril.
The Palestinians have been issuing calls for international protection for a while at the U.N. So, in essence what we have is the Palestinians asking for a certain policy, which is rightly ignored by the international community as unworkable. Palestinian terrorists then instigate violence and create a situation where the Security Council feels the need to respond, and the Arab states are there to offer a resolution with the solution that the Palestinians wanted all along. Some of the states on the council that voted in favor of the resolution fooled themselves into thinking that it was a balanced text (though, of course, it was not), and that they were voting to urge a stop to a terrible situation. In reality, they were only making the situation worse in the long run by encouraging Palestinian intransigence and, indirectly, violence.
Finally, there is a real question of whether or not the riots from Gaza warranted this much Security Council attention in the first place. When there are instances of actual peaceful protests being suppressed by authoritarian states, the council tends to ignore it (see, Iran, Venezuela, and most recently, Nicaragua). Palestinian protesters are only cared about if they appear as a violent riot rushing at Israel’s border; the right to protest against Hamas brutality in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority repression in the West Bank is not important to the international community. At the U.N., hypocrisy is the norm and the U.S. veto is the only check against double standards and delegitimization and demonization of Israel.
Oren Drori is the Program Officer for United Nations Affairs at B’nai B’rith International where he supports advocacy and programming efforts that advance B’nai B’rith’s goals at the U.N., which include: defending Israel, combating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and promoting global human rights and humanitarian concerns. He received a B.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota in 2004 and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago in 2006. Click here to view more of his additional content.
Yesterday’s massive reception in Jerusalem at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs in honor of the visiting delegation from the U.S., here to help inaugurate the new American embassy in Jerusalem later today, was a celebration of new heights in U.S.-Israel relations reached under the Trump-Netanyahu partnership. Not only were the speeches rendered — by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin — mutually supportive, but there were moments of candid camaraderi, such as when the prime minister recognized White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, saying that he has known him for “105 years and there is a special bond between our families” — that must convince any observer that this is no normal diplomatic relationship based solely on state interests, but one that bores down to the kishkes of both governments.
The relocation of the embassy to Israel’s capital should give Israel’s enemies (Iran and Hezbollah) and detractors (the EU and U.N.) good reason for conjecture about what coordinated steps they might face as they continue to threaten joint Israeli-U.S. strategic interests.
The relief felt by most Israelis who have carried the 70-year old burden of this unique boycott by the international community against its capital and other hurtful diplomatic anomalies was reflected in the words of Netanyahu, who set the tone for the event:
“I call on all countries to join the U.S. in moving their embassies to Jerusalem. Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it’s the right thing to do…Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it advances peace, and that’s because you can’t base peace on a foundation of lies. You base peace on the foundations of truth, and the truth is that not only has Jerusalem been the capital of the Jewish people for millennia and the capital of our state from its inception, the truth is that under any peace agreement you could possibly imagine, Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital.
It took President Trump, a President Trump to enunciate this simple, basic truth. And once enunciated, that truth will propagate…
And to achieve peace, we have to do one other thing: We must confront the enemies of peace, and I thank President Trump for his decision to confront Iran rather than to appease it…With all due respect to those sitting in European capitals, we here in the capitals of the Middle East — in Jerusalem, in Riyadh and elsewhere — we’ve seen the disastrous consequences of the Iran deal. And so when President Trump decides to pull out of this deal, to walk away from it, we know that when he walks away from a bad deal, he’s doing a good thing for our region, for the United States and for the world.”
While the U.S. will not be alone in Jerusalem — Guatemala will reopen its embassy here on Wednesday (after opening its embassy in Jerusalem in 1959 and moving it to Tel Aviv about 20 years later) and Paraguay will relocate next week — a signal that the going will still be tough, which was reflected in the dearth of foreign ambassadors who accepted the Foreign Ministry’s invitation to honor Israel and the U.S. with their presence at the reception. Of EU states, only Romania, Hungary and the Czech Republic — three countries that blocked an EU draft resolution condemning the U.S. move — and Austria were present, alongside a number of African and Latin American states. Even countries famous for their friendship with Israel such as Germany, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus — the latter two who held their fourth summit with Netanyahu just last week in Nicosia — stayed demonstratively at arm’s length.
Besides the upbeat atmosphere of the whole affair — that included a great performance of Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” by an Ethiopian vocalist and ended with Netta Barzilai’s winning Eurovision song “Toy” — the reception engendered particular pride for me and anyone affiliated with B’nai B’rith. A special exhibit on former U.S. President Harry Truman was displayed in the expansive reception hall. Guests were able to view the pen used to sign the de jure recognition of the State of Israel, which occurred on January 31, 1949. They were also able to view the famous photograph from that occasion showing Truman with the only three invited guests: B’nai B’rith President Frank Goldman, B’nai B’rith Executive Vice President Maurice Bisgyer and B’nai B’rith Kansas City member Eddie Jacobson.
It was Jacobson — Truman’s WWI comrade-in-arms and lifelong confidant — who, acting at the request of Goldman, successfully appealed to the president to meet with World Zionist Organization President Dr. Chaim Weizmann when the State Department was lobbying Truman to rescind U.S. support for the U.N. Partition Plan in favor of a U.N. mandate over “Palestine.” This was anathema to the Zionists who viewed this looming threat as the possible end to the Zionist endeavor of the creation of a sovereign Jewish state. Truman agreed to see the ailing Weizmann — who was ushered in through the back door of the White House secretly, and lodged at a hotel under the alias “Frank Goldman” — and his impassioned appeal to the president to maintain U.S. support for partition won the day.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Alan Schneider is the director of B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, which serves as the hub of B'nai B'rith International activities in Israel. The World Center is the key link between Israel and B'nai B'rith members and supporters around the world. To view some of his additional content, Click Here.
By David Michaels
Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the prime minister of Georgia, visited Israel late last month.
Sadly, the visit was overshadowed by the violent attack on a security officer at Israel’s embassy in Jordan and tensions attributed to the short-lived introduction of basic security measures at Jerusalem’s Temple Mount after the gunning down of two (non-Jewish) Israeli policemen there. Coming in the run-up to Tisha B’Av, the date marking the destruction of Judaism’s single holiest place, the crisis again encapsulated the deadly consequences of wild anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement. Mainstream Palestinian leaders have both denied Jewish history on the Mount and claimed Israeli designs to “Judaize” it, even as Israel has remarkably preserved Islamic clerical administration of the site for 50 years and disallowed Jewish prayer there.
If widespread international ignorance of this Israeli conciliation weren’t enough, Palestinians again set a new standard for chutzpah by warning that the use of metal detectors outside the site—ubiquitous at vulnerable places worldwide, including at the adjoining Western Wall—would intolerably violate Muslim worshippers’ rights. The Palestinians have already long rejected the presence of cameras on the Mount to further document the vile agitation by clerics that ensures unending warfare against and with Israel.
While foreign capitulation to the Palestinian-led regional saber-rattling has been as dispiriting as it has been unsurprising, the overlooked visit to Israel by Georgia’s head of government deserves positive attention disproportionate to the size of a Georgian citizenry less than half that of little Israel. The trip, one of repeated and reciprocal high-level visits between the two countries, testifies to the strength and significance of Israel’s bilateral relations with an increasingly diverse set of states, even as conditions in the Middle East remain so precarious.
Although Israeli ties to foremost world powers, above all the United States—but also now India, whose prime minister made his own historic journey to Israel last month—will always be considered vital, some less powerful countries, particularly in Israel’s near-neighborhood, offer distinct importance on account of their geographic situation, natural resources, intelligence capabilities, market potential and shared strategic concerns, to name but a few tangible assets.
And so, size doesn’t always matter most in international relations; where once “traditional” powers like France and Germany, their continuing importance notwithstanding, may have privileged them among foreign policy priorities, today Greece and Cyprus, far smaller and less affluent than their northwestern neighbors, take a back seat to no one as focal points of Israeli diplomats and policymakers.
Similarly, the measure of Israel’s relationship with other countries cannot be contained to those countries’ votes on rote motions on Israel at the United Nations—even as there is cause for hope that member states can pull loose from ossified patterns of bloc voting on biased U.N. resolutions related to the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—serving also as foreign minister—has sought positive voting trajectories in his broadening global outreach whose capstone undertaking, aside from the trailblazing alliances with India and the Aegean countries, has likely been the restoration of Israel’s long-dormant partnership with African states. Accordingly, now counted among Israel’s friends even at the inhospitable U.N. are not only the U.S., Canada and Australia but Togo and Burkina Faso. And these join Pacific island states like Micronesia and the Marshall Islands and such Latin American states as Guatemala and Paraguay, as well as central and southeastern European states including Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic and Albania. And Georgia.
Some of these countries are courageous enough to vote outright against discriminatory motions at the U.N., while others at least begin to pull their neighbors in the right direction by refusing to support texts that recklessly malign Israel’s record or even whitewash Jewish history, discrediting the U.N. itself in the process.
Last month, B’nai B’rith leaders concluded a visit to Georgia, where we met with Kvirikashvili, and also to Azerbaijan—which Netanyahu recently visited in a first for an Israeli premier. Georgia is a historic Christian land, while Azerbaijan is predominantly Shiite Muslim; both are home to substantial, well-integrated Jewish communities largely spared the anti-Semitism found elsewhere, and both Caucasus countries maintain exceptionally close, critical ties with Israel. Tbilisi, Georgia, and Baku, Azerbaijan, are rare world cities where a visitor senses genuine safety in synagogues—and, even rarer, these are places where, walking down the street, one might come upon an Israeli flag flying side by side with a Georgian or Azeri one. Such a display of genuine international pluralism would not likely be found today in Brussels or Stockholm.
The upshot of Israel’s relationship with Georgia and Azerbaijan, as with so many other countries of varied location and culture, is that comity between peoples is possible. Indeed, it is here, even across faith boundaries. Israel is proud and eager to cultivate bonds of friendship with fellow members of the international community, whether of Muslim, Christian, Hindu or any other stripe. All that is needed for the achievement of a mutually rewarding coexistence in the Middle East is for Israel’s neighbors to recognize that it is at home in the region just as they are.
This week, the World Health Assembly (WHA), the U.N. body overseeing the work of the better-known World Health Organization (WHO), voted on yet another resolution targeting Israel. Let the complete absurdity of the situation sink in: Israel, a leader in the medical field, which provides medical aid throughout the world, likely including in countries that shamefully voted in favor of the resolution, was singled out for scrutiny.
No other state was on the agenda; there were also no other WHO reports on a specific conflict situation. Not even Syria received this kind of attention—and the Assad regime has been bombing hospitals this year as part of its ongoing military campaign/humanitarian catastrophe.
At last year’s WHA, the European Union states voted en masse for the anti-Israel resolution saying it was technical in nature. Even if this were true—and it was laughably false—the very nature of having only one country-specific resolution, and having that resolution attack the sole democracy and medical leader in the Middle East region, is inherently political. More to the point, it is a symptom of the dangerous selectivity and special standards that apply only to the Jewish state at the U.N.
This year’s resolution is more bare boned than resolutions from past years, but the main problem persists, and is a grave threat to the credibility of the WHO. After this year’s vote, in which most of the EU states again voted in favor (with the notable exception of the United Kingdom voting against and abstentions by Bulgaria, Croatia and Hungary), the German delegate made a statement on behalf of some of the European states that voted in favor urging the Israelis and Palestinians to work together on a text that could reach consensus. That request is bizarre and insulting—asking Israel to participate in a process where the designated end goal is a resolution that again perpetuates the singling out of the Jewish state.
The question that those that care about world health must ask is: Does the WHO/WHA want to go down the road of other politicized agencies at the U.N.?
We have seen this before, most notably at the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), two agencies so well-known for being mired in obsession with Israel (UNHRC) and/or denying the history of the Jewish people (UNESCO), that the work of the entire organization is under threat of becoming delegitimized.
And, while human rights and preservation of history and culture are a vital part of our human existence, these two agencies have been problematic for a while now. The UNHRC, which has always had a special agenda item solely dedicated to attacks on Israel, was a politicized body from its birth over a decade ago. UNESCO has also had its own share of issues before. The United States stopped paying dues after UNESCO allowed a still-not-existent Palestinian state to join as a full-fledged member state, and the U.S. also refused to be a member of the organization for a long stretch of time due to what was a notoriously anti-American orientation at UNESCO in the 1980s.
The WHO, though, should be different. It must be above petty political attacks because millions of lives are at risk. We all need the WHO to improve lives and to stop the spread of communicable diseases before they become epidemics or global pandemics. Instead, the WHA stopped everything to engage in an hours-long session of speaker after speaker (mostly from dictatorships with appalling human rights records and health situations) bashing Israel. Does anyone aside from the Palestinian representatives and their allies in states hostile to Israel believe that this is the best use of the time of an expert health body?
After the vote at the WHA, the representative of the United Kingdom put it best by saying, “If we politicize the WHO, we do so at our peril.” Sadly, only six other member states had the fortitude to stand up to this politicization by voting against the resolution: Australia, Canada Guatemala, Israel, Togo and the United States.
World attention has recently been focused on the shameful passage of an anti-Israel resolution on settlements at the U.N. Security Council. Resolution 2334 contains a litany of criticism of Israel while absurdly striking a tone on incitement and terrorism that puts the onus on both sides of the conflict.
The resolution condemns all building beyond the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli armistice line—a line created after Jordan and other neighboring Arab states invaded the newly independent State of Israel in an attempt to annihilate it from existence. The armistice line (also known as the “Green Line”) stood in place until 1967, when Jordan and other Arab states again tried to destroy Israel, only to lose significant territory in the Six-Day War, when Israel liberated the eastern part of Jerusalem (including the Old City) and Judea and Samaria (which Jordan had by then re-named the “West Bank”), among other territories.
The section in Resolution 2334 that could prove to be the most problematic in the long term is a vaguely worded passage that calls on states to “distinguish” between their dealings with Israel and territories Israel gained during the Six-Day War. It’s not clear how states should “distinguish” their actions, but it is clear how the Palestinians and the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will read this phrase—they will clearly try to use this as international cover for a boycott.
More on the Latest Anti-Israel U.N. Resolution
On the same day that the Security Council passed Resolution 2334, the General Assembly’s 5th Committee (the U.N.’s administrative and budget committee) decided, by its usually lop-sided anti-Israel majority, to fund a Human Rights Council (HRC) decision from March to create a database of companies doing business in areas beyond the Green Line. There is no ambiguity about what is happening with this decision—the U.N. is being willingly co-opted to become the secretariat of the BDS movement, creating a list of companies that activists can draw upon for divestment campaigns.
Israel submitted an amendment to this 5th Committee resolution to strip the funding from the mandate, but only Australia, Canada, Guatemala, Palau and the United States sided with Israel. The European Union (EU) gave a statement saying that EU member states would vote against the amendment as a bloc (even though the EU did not support the original HRC decision in March, albeit only by abstention), because it was important to stand by a principle of not letting policy discussion distract from the budgetary process, which is often run by consensus. Apparently that principle is more important than the principle that the United Nations should not be co-opted for anti-Semitic purposes.
The EU has been trying on this issue to have its cake and eat it too. Some EU members have laws against boycotts of Israel (and EU leaders pay lip service to opposing a boycott), yet the EU Commission put out guidelines by which member states should label all Israeli products from the disputed territories. While the guidelines do not explicitly call for a boycott of goods from the settlements, it seems only reasonable to deduce that it is meant to enable one.
The U.N.’s database will contain Israel companies based in the disputed territories, of course, but it will also likely target outside corporations that do business in the territories, multinational corporations that help bring security for Israeli citizens regardless of whether they reside within the Green Line or not. And it could very well be broadened to include Israeli businesses not even based in the territories, but those such as banks and stores that operate wherever their Israeli customers reside.
These recent U.N. actions may have created an overreach that provides an opportunity to move the U.N. in the right course. The Security Council resolution has created a furor in Congress and the incoming administration, which has led to threats of action against the U.N. Because of this, we’re now hearing the use of a word that we have not heard in a while at the U.N.—“reform.” If there is to be any reform at the U.N., one of the first priorities must be to reverse the barely concealed anti-Semitic efforts to boycott Israel that so many member states seem willing to either promote or at the very least tolerate.
Despite an astounding array of conventions, covenants, directives, framework decisions, case law and other existing legal instruments meant to ensure human rights and freedom from discrimination in the European Union, Jews continue to face high levels of anti-Semitism in nearly all of the 28 EU member states.
I had the privilege of participating recently in the 10th Israel-EU Bilateral Dialogue on Combating Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia at the invitation of the Israeli Foreign Ministry (MFA) in Jerusalem earlier this month. The forum was established to allow Israelis and representatives of the European Commission—the government of the European Union—to discuss their ongoing work in combating antisemitism, exchange experiences and compare best practices. Participants included high-ranking European Commission and Israel Foreign Ministry officials, experts and practitioners in the field of education and social media.
The meeting occurred after the failed attempt by the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to adopt the long-awaited Working Definition of anti-Semitism. Researchers, lawmakers and law enforcement practitioners have long complained that the lack of a generally agreed-upon definition of anti-Semitism—even if not legally binding—has helped confound efforts to combat the issue. So long as there was no definition, one man’s anti-Semitism could arguably be another man’s legitimate, albeit judgmental, opinion about Jews or Israel.
READ: A Potential Breakthrough in Defining Anti-Semitism
The definition proposed to the OSCE—only one sentence long with no mention of the State of Israel—goes on to provide 11 illustrative examples, most of which reference different manifestations of anti-Israel prejudice as forms of anti-Semitism: “Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust;…Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor; Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g. claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis; Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis...” – while adding the clear caveat that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
The definition was adopted in May by the 31-member International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (encompassing European states plus the U.S., Canada, Argentina and Israel), but due to an obstructionist role played by a single member, the Russian Federation, the definition did not pass muster at OSCE, leaving states wanting to do utilize this new tool in the fight against anti-Semitism to adopt it individually as local legislation. The UK’s new prime minister Theresa May has committed Great Britain—faced with an alarming 61% increase in anti-Semitic crime over the past year—to being the first country to formally adopt the definition as law.
Despite the palatable disappointment at the OSCE vote, the Israel-EU dialogue provided a useful opportunity for officials to restate the Union’s commitments to counter anti—Semitism. Daniel Braun, the deputy head of cabinet for Věra Jourová, the European Union's commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, declared that combating anti-Semitism is not the responsibility of the Jewish community alone but an assault on fundamental rights that affects all people and not only minorities. Paul Nemitz, director for fundamental rights and rule of law, said that the Holocaust is part of European citizenship and that everyone, not only Jews, suffer from the effects of anti-Semitism, adding that the dialogue on combating the issue must continue irrespective of the state of the political dialogue between Israel and the EU.
The dialogue also provided a platform for an exchange of views on best practices, latest research and technological advances in combating anti-Semitism and also for a reality check on the efficacy of some long-held axioms.
For example, the EU has put much hope—and funding—into education and youth action as a means of tackling radicalization and anti-Semitism. Indeed, the concluding sentences in the extensive 10-year review on anti-Semitism in the EU, published last month by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, states that “Education is essential to prevent intolerant attitudes. Through education that fosters socialization, tolerance, universal values and encourages critical thinking, children and young people can bring change to their families and communities, and ultimately to the broader society.” This was reflected in the message of Katharina Von-Schnurbein, coordinator for combating anti-Semitism, who said that to change attitudes in the long term, EU member states need to tackle hate through education by working among teachers and principals. Braun also said that tolerance education must involve the whole spectrum of Jewish history in Europe, not just the Holocaust, which has been the focus of EU efforts until now. He was concerned by reports of anti-Semitic acts in schools and universities in Europe, adding that newcomers to the continent are bringing anti-Semitic attitudes with them and that it is Europe's responsibility to inculcate its basic principles of respect and tolerance into these newcomers.
But putting this approach into question, Dr. Eyal Kaminka, director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, argued that in the current hyper-charged atmosphere at many schools across Europe today, it is doubtful that meaningful change could be affected in schools since, as reported by many of the European teachers his school trains in methods for teaching the Holocaust, they are unable to implement any Holocaust curriculum in the face of student’s raucous objections, fanned by attitudes of Holocaust denial at home. Kaminka called on the EU officials to review the telling testimonies he has compiled of teachers across Europe that reflect the true face of intolerance and anti-Semitism in the classroom.
Perhaps the most hopeful news at the dialogue came from reports on implementation of the new Code of Conduct on countering illegal hate speech online reached this May between the Commission and four major IT platforms: Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Social media is widely recognized as the principal platform for the promotion of anti-Semitic attitudes today. Under the Code, the IT companies must put in place a clear and effective process to review notifications regarding illegal hate speech on their services so they can remove or disable access to such content. Von-Schnurbein said that the Code establishes that the internet is no longer a legal black hole—, as it has been since its inception some 15 years ago, but that standards of incitement and illegal hate speech apply there too as it does in the print and broadcast media, terminating the privilege IT companies had claimed until now that they are not responsible for 3rd party content.
Although much hope was put in the Code, Von-Schnurbein expressed disappointment at the findings of the first review of implementation undertaken in October that indicated that only 28% of flagged entries have been removed by the platforms, a percentage she admitted did not meet expectations. When the fact that the flaggers are all vetted and paid for by the IT companies themselves, the percentage of takedowns pales even further (takedowns of flagged offensive material from non-vetted sources is even lower).
This led a number of participants in the dialogue to express incredulousness at the IT company's continued insistence on using manual flagging while objecting to the institution’s use of more uniform and reliable technological solutions for automatic removal as they already do to generate individualized advertising and content. As reported recently by Digital Trends, Google recently made improvements to its algorithm that will prevent Holocaust denial websites from appearing in search results. This improvement in the algorithm was made after Google came under fire for enabling neo-Nazi and Holocaust-denying websites to rank high up in search results for questions such as: "Did the Holocaust happen?"
Some of the most advanced technology available to cleanse the web from hate speech has been developed in Israel. One of these is Spot.IM—a fully automated tool that monitors the comments sections in online media outlets for hate and verbal violence, identifying individuals who prowl the internet hoping to spark violent discourse or aggravate them. The platform, now used by over 5,000 active news sites and online magazines in the U.S., Israel and Europe—automatically filters their activity up to and including blocking them and deleting their entire comment history.
Israel is also in the process of falling in line with the U.S., Canada, Australia and the UK after a new legislation, the Removal of Terror-Inciting Content from Social Media bill, dubbed the “Facebook bill,” passed first muster last week in the Cabinet. Under the bill, courts will be empowered to order social media companies to remove posts that the authorities consider “a criminal endangerment to personal, public or national security." Although in the past year, 71% of 1,755 requests made by the Justice Ministry to providers to remove content were met, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said that while internet companies were cooperating with the government in cleansing the web of content that violates defamation, adoption, Holocaust denial, incitement and anti-terrorism laws, "it is important that this cooperation be required, and not according to their whims.” The bill would apply to posts that “call for an act of violence or terrorism" and demands that posts are removed from visibility in Israel.
The Jewish community in general and B'nai B'rith in particular, along with other watchdog agencies, have a responsibility to ensure that the Commission keeps up pressure on the providers to make the Internet and social media a safer environment. In fact, speakers at the dialogue expressed that the dedication and commitment exhibited by Jewish interlocutors on this issue could be duplicated among other targeted minorities in Europe. This is a distinction I believe many of us would be only too happy to concede.
For a student of political science, these are illuminating, if often also unnerving, times.
Many of us had thought that we—perhaps as a species, certainly as a society—were more or less above, and also beyond, upheaval. We were governed by rationality, oriented to stability, predisposed to decency. In 2016, cold war was supposed to be a relic of a different century, holy war even more outdated. In an age of near-instant “fact-checking,” flagrant falsehoods were supposed to be deprived of any traction, and at a time of growing political correctness, demagoguery was supposed to be deemed distasteful, when not laughable.
Wherever one stands on the myriad global and domestic issues of the day, few of us, it is safe to say, are laughing at the moment.
In the year 2016, seven decades after World War II, our high-technology world has watched, with a mixture of wariness and impotence, a five-year-long Syrian civil war that has killed and maimed well over half a million people. As soon as that and nearby conflicts began to propel refugees outward, the European Union—that great exercise in regional collectivism and answer to the continental fissures of the past—began in earnest to crack, and now at least one of its leading members is headed for the door. The 20th century rivalry between East and West has also made a riposte in a territorial standoff on European soil, in Ukraine. And while the world has somehow grown numb to serial decapitations and other barbarisms in the Middle East, Europe has responded with the advancement of multiple rightist and other extreme parties. Much of France’s left, for its part, recently joined in advocating restrictions on Muslim women’s personal right to dress in accordance with their religious convictions.
Meanwhile, 77 years after Hitler was so brazen as to announce that a genocide of Jews would come if the Jews brought it on themselves, and 41 years after the U.N. General Assembly voted to equate Zionism with racism, members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization have perfected a new perversion by effectively severing Judaism from its holiest of sites in Jerusalem by relabeling them as exclusively Arab and Islamic.
Perhaps not least disturbingly, much of the globe has been experiencing a wave of populism, authoritarianism and questioning of the rule of law. Vitriol or worse has been directed at religious and ethnic communities, civil society and political opposition, especially online, and a general “post-truth,” “fake news” age seems to have dawned. Even in the West, more than merely a coarsening of rhetoric or a lessening of civility, we’ve seen the risk of erosion of democratic norms.
During an American election season when both presidential candidates had children who either are Jewish or have Jewish spouses, Jews in particular have watched social networks overwhelmed by some “alt-right” aggressors posting sentiments like “dirty kike, get back in the oven.” Separately, the platform of a consortium called the Movement for Black Lives—despite the fact that many American Jews, but also Israelis, have been in the forefront of championing civil rights—singled out Israel for depiction as an “apartheid state” that commits “genocide,” and that is thus deserving of divestiture and a cutoff of defense assistance.
These and many other realities underscore the precariousness of social cohesion even in the contemporary period, with all its blessings. Simple parallels to previous eras would advisably be avoided, if only because ours and its conditions may in some ways be unique. But a general sense of malaise and uncertainty—whether founded upon security, economic, cultural or other concerns—can lead to worse, with fringe elements seeming actually invigorated by the prospect of chaos and conflict. At times of apprehension, more citizens are susceptible to shallow solutions—or worse, the politics of divisiveness. (In turn, journalists and politicians tend to romanticize popular passion—just look at conventional wisdom within so many countries’ chattering classes, where the unarticulated view is that the “Arab street” is so angry and formidable, like the Arab bloc at the U.N., its claims against Israel could never possibly be wrong.) This climate is conducive to the deepening of mutual estrangement and an ethos of plain offensiveness for the sake of offensiveness.
Even where we’ve seen one step forward, such a step has often been followed by another back. Jarred by the heightened uproar this year, some governments pledging not to repeat unprincipled voting at UNESCO on resolutions whitewashing Jewish ties to Jerusalem have proceeded to vote “yes” on motions doing the very same thing at other U.N. bodies.
On the eve of his exit from office, after a full decade at the helm, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finally acknowledged that Palestinian grievances are not the cause of all the Middle East’s wars, that Palestinian terror and incitement continue unabated, and that “bias” is manifest when “[d]ecades of political maneuverings have created a disproportionate volume of resolutions, reports and conferences criticizing Israel.” He added, “rather than helping the Palestinian cause, this reality has hampered the ability of the U.N. to fulfill its role effectively.” But the secretary-general went on to say, beyond recycling the same old shoddy condemnations of Israeli policy, that “another troubling measure of the current state of play is that, during my tenure, the Security Council adopted only two resolutions on the Middle East peace process, the most recent almost eight years ago.”
Sadly, one week later, last Friday, the council took the entirely unhelpful step of adopting a new resolution, which, while calling in general terms for an end to violence and incitement, singled out Israel by name for condemnation over Jewish settlements, even communities in Jerusalem, deemed the primary impediment to peace. (No heed, of course, was paid to the fact that Israel has over the years uprooted entire settlements or frozen their growth—and offered Palestinians statehood and virtually all the territory publicly demanded by their mainstream leaders—only to receive unending terrorism and intransigence in return.) The U.S. abstained on the motion, enabling its passage. American enablement of the council resolution, though widely seen as a swipe at Israel’s prime minister, was ironically perhaps most stinging to the Arab leadership of Egypt, which had taken the political risk of agreeing to shelve the text just one day prior.
While withholding an American veto on this type of resolution is not unprecedented, it is a departure from the common practice over the course of many years, and a breach of the principle that Palestinians can achieve political goals only through direct talks and compromise with Israel, not lobbying the U.N. The day before Jews were feted with greetings of “Happy Chanukah” for the festival recalling the lighting of the menorah on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount—and the day before the birth of a Jew “in Bethlehem of Judea” was celebrated by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a subtle escalation of a position merely deeming further settlement activity “not legitimate,” made reference to the presence of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria as having “no legal validity.” And, this week, Secretary of State John Kerry followed up with a speech on Middle East peace parameters in which he invoked a view that settlements are “inconsistent with international law.” He also employed, at a time when disputes over territory and demographics elsewhere continue to be wholly ignored by the international community, a straw-man assertion that regular criticism of Israel is often maligned as anti-Semitic.
The content of last Friday’s U.N. resolution is, admittedly, not very novel and, by itself, of limited direct impact on realities in the Middle East. What is significant about the resolution is its timing. Coming as the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been conducting preliminary consideration of Palestinian accusations against Israel, fresh Security Council action could push the ICC to direct a full probe at the Jewish state. At least until a new U.S. administration settles in, Palestinians will surely be emboldened to further pursue a strategy of combativeness and unearned, unilateral recognitions of statehood (notwithstanding the new resolution’s own censure of “all measures aimed at altering the… status of the Palestinian Territory”). And, not least, the resolution’s call for countries “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” will be used as fuel by partisan activists agitating for discriminatory boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
Arguably, coalition politics in Israel—the joining of those leaning rightward with those leaning to the left, or the recurrent succession of one by the other—have helped encumber Israeli efforts to advance a clear defense, in historic, security, legal and ethical terms, of the country’s settlement policies. After all, whatever the long-term future may be of any given settlement under a final peace agreement, these are communities in the heart of Jews’ ancestral homeland, with long roots prior to their various forcible displacements. The existence of the settlements has broadly shifted Arab focus from the elimination of Israel entirely to the resolution of a dispute over final borders. The settlements actually comprise a tiny fraction of the landmass of the West Bank, and none remain in Gaza. Their growth mirrors, but pales in comparison to, the continuous increase in size of the Arab population on the Israeli side of the pre-1967 lines. The applicability of particular international conventions regarding the settlement of contested lands is also highly dubious considering that the territory in question, acquired during a defensive campaign, lacked a previous sovereign.
This said, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War is undoubtedly seen by Palestinians as an occasion to ratchet up a global diplomatic offensive against Israel. Whether the international community fully re-immerses in such combat will depend on an array of factors, from the course taken by new leaders in Washington and at the U.N. to the degree to which other crises, including the carnage in Syria and Iranian nuclear activity, allow focus to shift back to the Palestinian narrative.
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