President Barack Obama in an interview with Israel's Channel 2 TV, screened on January 9, 2017. (Photo: Channel 2 screenshot / The Times of Israel)
Asked whether his administration was behind Resolution 2334 and if he understood Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu's description of the move as a "shameful, anti-Israeli ploy" that led to an Israeli "sense of betrayal"? Obama answered: "No. I'll be honest with you: That kind of hyperbole, those kinds of statements, don't have a basis in fact. They may work well with respect to deflecting attention from the problem of settlements. They may play well with Bibi's political base, as well as the Republican base here in the United States, but they don't match up with the facts."
The president's response is his first to address the specific allegations leveled against his administration since the UN vote took place on December 23, 2016. In the wake of the resolution that named Israeli settlements as illegal, and labeled the Western Wall in the Old City and all of East Jerusalem as "occupied Palestinian territory," Israeli officials took to the airwaves, claiming they had incontrovertible proof that the Obama administration was behind the resolution. David Keyes, spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu, declared they had "ironclad information" from sources both within the Arab world and internationally that demonstrated, "this was a deliberate push by the United States and in fact they helped create the resolution in the first place."
"The Obama administration not only failed to defend Israel from this harassment at the UN," Netanyahu said, "it cooperated with it behind the scenes." The Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, went further on CNN, confirming that Israel has proof the White House drove the resolution and will, "present this evidence to the new administration through the appropriate channels." The Israelis would leave it up to the incoming Trump administration to reveal what information it chooses.
Team Obama was quick to push back. As usual, Obama's Deputy National Security Advisor (and spinster) Ben Rhodes—whom Dermer referred to as an "expert in fiction"—took the lead on the major networks at home and abroad. "There's a huge record on this, and I think it's very unfair and inaccurate to suggest that somehow this was an outcome that we sought," Rhodes proclaimed. "If it was an outcome that we sought, we would have done this long ago."
On Israel's Channel 2 TV, responding to the criticism that Israeli officials felt betrayed, Rhodes replied:
By definition it's not an ambush when President Obama and Secretary Kerry have been saying in hundreds of conversations and in public comments, saying that Israeli settlement activity was pushing into the West Bank in a way that was making a two-state solution unachievable over time, and if that activity were to continue, we could see further international steps against Israeli settlement activity...
Of course, the United States has veto power over Security Council resolutions so it could prevent such "international steps" at the anti-Israel world body. That makes his last phrase read more like the diplomatic equivalent of a mob boss unleashing his goons, while smugly saying, "I might not be able to guarantee your safety."
When pressed on whether he thought the timing was right, given that he was in the last days of his presidency, Mr. Obama told the same Israeli TV network on Monday, "The fact of the matter is that I'm president until January 20, and I have an obligation to do what I think is right." When asked whether he had more in store on the peace process or whether Netanyahu could sleep more soundly until Donald Trump's inauguration, the president deflected with a swipe at the incoming president: "Well, I think there's an interesting question as to whether he'll sleep better after January 20," he responded dryly.
It all begs the question: Could Barack Obama actually be responsible for such a maneuver? Surely, he decided to abstain from the vote but did he, as the Israelis claim, plan this maneuver from start to finish?
It all seems rather cynical. After all, during his reelection campaign in 2012 he gave a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and declared: "If during this political season you hear some question of my administration's support for Israel, remember that it's not backed up by the facts... There should not be a shred of doubt right now: When the chips are down, I have Israel's back." Obama continued:
When there are efforts to boycott or divest from Israel, we will stand against them. And whenever an effort is made to de-legitimize the state of Israel, my administration has opposed them... the United States will stand up against efforts to single Israel out at the United Nations. As you know, that pledge has been kept.
If Barack Obama, Ben Rhodes, and other administration officials are right, there must be an epic misunderstanding involving the recent UN vote. If not, at the very least it throws into sharp relief the difference between a president who wanted the Jewish vote for reelection in 2012, and an unaccountable president who's free to settle old scores during his last days in office.
As the days passed and more facts came to light, what happened became increasingly clear: Contrary to their protestations, the Obama administration planned, advocated, and shepherded the anti-Israel resolution through the UN Security Council. The decision was taken with the Palestinian delegation in a series of whirlwind talks that began on December 12 in Washington, including meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and additional meetings with representatives of the State Department, Homeland Security, and Central Intelligence Agency. According to the Egyptian daily, Al-Youm Al-Sabi', which obtained minutes of the secret talks, "the sides agreed to collaborate regarding a resolution on the settlements."
That collaboration was not designed as a one-off experiment; it was part of a larger initiative. The report in the Egyptian daily, obtained and translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), described the meetings as also "aimed at coordinating Kerry's attendance at the upcoming international Paris Conference set for January 15, 2017, in order to promote a further international move regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." The conference in Paris takes place a few days before the end of President Obama's term in office.
In order to make sure the resolution passed, the Obama administration conducted a pressure campaign on Security Council member states with the assistance of Great Britain. Vladislav Davidzon, Chief Editor of The Odessa Review, wrote a detailed account of the American operation on Ukrainian officials in Tablet Magazine. Quoting high-level Ukrainian, Israeli, and American sources, he revealed that the effort included several conversations with the Ukrainian delegation—including a December 19 phone call from Vice President Biden to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Before the call, the delegation was expected to abstain from the vote.
The Obama administration wasn't just concerned with having the resolution pass. It required certain panache. A U.S. national security source revealed, "the Obama administration needed a 14-0 vote to justify what the source called 'the optics' of its own abstention." The Ukrainians asked if they could postpone the vote for several days as a courtesy to Israel but according to a high-ranking Israeli official, "[U.S. Ambassador to the UN] Samantha Power personally put pressure on the Ukrainian ambassador in the UN and told them that the American side was not willing to accept a delay." Meanwhile, Secretary Kerry was already set to deliver a speech on the peace process that would coincide with the passing of the resolution.
But things didn't quite go according to plan. The vote on the draft was originally scheduled for December 22, to be brought forward by Egypt. When Israel caught wind of the impending vote and of the U.S. intention to abstain, Netanyahu called President-elect Trump. Together, they applied pressure on the Egyptian president, who agreed to shelve the resolution.
Team Obama was not going to have their plan derailed by the Israelis or Donald Trump. Luckily, John Kerry already had that covered. In November, he spoke with New Zealand's foreign minister, Murray McCully, about such a resolution. McCully, known for his anti-Israel leaning, was only too happy to oblige. The next day, New Zealand's UN envoy, joined by Venezuela, Malaysia, and Senegal, picked up the baton and brought the resolution to a vote. It passed as the Obama administration originally planned, albeit a little later and with more blowback than they expected.
Don't Believe Your Lying Eyes
Burdened by the unexpected negative optics surrounding the vote, White House messaging became the first casualty. Minutes after abstaining, UN Ambassador Samantha Power delivered a speech at the Security Council admonishing the members for their persistent anti-Israel agenda—that she just allowed to transpire. Days later, Secretary John Kerry sought to preserve his original message of six principles for the peace process, while augmenting his speech with a lengthy defense of the administration's actions and a selective retelling of history. Whether intentionally or not, it served to enflame rather than ease the tension.
With more reports leaking the details of the Obama administration's plan, John Kerry and lead Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, both denied any involvement in drafting the resolution. Omri Ceren of The Israel Project captured the tweets, back and forth, from Israeli journalists Gal Berger and Gidon Shaviv, and U.S. State Department Spokesman John Kirby and National Security Council Spokesman Ned Price, in which the two U.S. officials not only denied reports in the Israeli press that published the minutes of the meetings (in addition to the Egyptian daily's account); they denied that the meetings between the Palestinians and U.S. officials ever took place. Shaviv pointed out that the meeting was actually listed on the State Department website and Berger tweeted that he received confirmation from a top Palestinian official that two separate meetings took place with John Kerry and Susan Rice.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat (L) wave before a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential compound in Ramallah January 4, 2014. (Photo: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
It remains to note that apparently, the Obama administration lacked the courage of its own convictions, preferring to abstain rather than cast their vote in favor of the anti-Israel measure they helped to cook up. Instead, they settled for a kabuki dance of denials and diplomatic theater, a scene borrowed from their performance when they sold the empty promises of the nuclear deal with Iran to the American people.
The damage the resolution will cause Israel internationally, diplomatically, and bilaterally with the United States is detailed elsewhere. It is nevertheless clear that for a president who told Israeli TV on Monday that he has an obligation to do what he thinks is right, he seems blissfully unaware of the ruin that has spread across the Middle East under his watch. On the contrary, he is quite proud of his legacy in the region. So for Barack Obama, stopping the genocide of some 500,000 Syrians next door to Israel doesn't qualify as right or worthy of his time as he leaves office; condemning housing permits in Israel and undercutting the Jewish claim to Jerusalem is.
In the same reelection speech President Obama delivered at AIPAC in 2012, he said, "There is no shortage of speeches on the friendship between the United States and Israel. But I'm also mindful of the proverb, 'A man is judged by his deeds, not his words.'"
Indeed, may it be so.