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Sometimes a Veto Means Victory

February 19, 2011 ·

Bureaucratic defeat within the United Nations security council might lead to diplomatic victory for those seeking to end Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.

Sometimes a Security Council vote can mean a victory for human rights no matter which side wins. Today’s vote on a resolution mildly condemning Israeli settlement activity is one example. If the U.S. had voted for the resolution, or even abstained and allowed others to pass it, it would have strengthened the international opposition to the Israeli occupation, and perhaps helped set the stage for greater UN and international engagement in ending the Israeli occupation and challenging Israel’s apartheid policies and other violations of human rights. It would have been a great victory. 

But instead, the U.S. vetoed the resolution – the vote was 14 to 1, with no abstentions.  On this issue once again, the U.S. stood absolutely isolated.  And ironically, that was a victory too.  Because the unity of other countries – Britain, Russia, Brazil and others spoke after the vote, expressing stronger than usual support for the anti-settlement resolution, and referencing (Britain most strongly) their recognition of a Palestinian state that may be declared in September.

In actuality, that recognition by itself is unlikely to achieve an end to the Israeli occupation; the PLO’s 1988 declaration of an independent state quickly won close recognition from close to 100 governments and the occupation intensified. But the recent moves towards greater recognition – especially from a number of Latin American countries who had not previously recognized Palestine – may foreshadow greater UN involvement in holding Israel accountable for its violations.

The U.S. had been threatening the veto for weeks. But in the last few days there had been rumors of a possible shift.  A bribe was offered: if the Palestinians would withdraw the resolution, the U.S. would accept a “presidential statement” from the Council; a diplomatic step-down from the power and enforceability of a resolution.  The Palestinian diplomats, backed by global support for the resolution and facing massive popular discontent at home because of concessions offered to Israel during peace negotiations, stood firm.  Then there was another rumor, maybe the U.S. would abstain, allowing the resolution to pass.

In the end, the Obama administration’s early threats proved accurate. The U.S. stood alone. Ambassador Susan Rice’s statement was astonishingly defensive – she went to great lengths to claim that the U.S. actually agrees with the resolution, that no one has done more than the U.S. to support a two-state solution, that the U.S. thinks settlement activity (not, we should note, the continuing existence of longstanding settlements now home to 500,000 illegal Jewish settlers in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem, only new settlement activity) violates Israel’s international commitments and more.  She tried to convince the world that “opposition to the resolution should not be misunderstood” to mean that the U.S. supports settlement activity – only that the Obama administration “thinks it unwise” for the United Nations to try to stop that settlement activity.  She defined settlements as one of the “core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians,” not as a violation of international law and a host of specific UN resolutions – therefore, she claimed, the issue was just one of the wrong venue for this debate. 

We’re really against settlements, she pleaded, we just want to end them our way. On our terms.  In our peace talks.  And we all know how well that’s gone so far.

In fact, the U.S. veto in the Security Council was consistent with a long and sordid history. As of 2009, fully half of the vetoes ever cast were to protect Israel from being held accountable in the UN for violations of international law and human rights. Another -third were to protect racist regimes in southern Africa -- South Africa and pre-independence South-West Africa -- from the same accountability.  Taken together, fully five out of six or more than 80% of U.S. vetoes have been cast to protect Washington’s allies accused of apartheid practices.

The Middle East is in the throes of a new wave of democratic revolutionary motion, and it is high time Palestinians were able to be part of that wave. While the U.S. use of the veto remains part of a sordid history, this time the veto may be different. It may actually help set the stage for much greater international engagement in the United Nations that, if combined with the mobilization for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions as well as growing opposition to U.S. military aid, could move once and for all to end the Israeli occupation and apartheid.