Paul Pillar

A Shameful Veto

When the victorious allies of World War II negotiated the establishment of a new international organization called the United Nations, they gave an extraordinary power to five selected members: the ability to block singlehanded any measure of the body's Security Council. This exceptional provision, which was contrary to the majority voting that would otherwise govern procedures of the council and other parts of the U.N., was a recognition that if each of the selected major powers could not be assured that the council would never act against it when it considered its own vital interests to be at stake, the world organization would risk being torn apart or might never have come into existence in the first place. Last Friday the Obama administration cast its first Security Council veto, which was also the first U.S. veto since 2006. But this veto was not cast to protect any U.S. interest, vital or otherwise. It did not even help to protect the vital interests of the state, Israel, on whose behalf it was cast. Instead, it served only to shield that state from international criticism of its colonization project in territories that its forces captured in a war 44 years ago and that are still in dispute.

The United States cast its veto even though the resolution it blocked embodied positions that the United States itself has repeatedly declared that it supports, including the need for Israel to stop constructing more settlements in disputed territory and the need for prompt negotiations to settle the disposition of those territories and other matters in dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. And it cast the veto even though, as the resolution reaffirmed and America's closest allies such as Britain stated in the Council debate, the construction of those settlements violates international law.

The inconsistency between the U.S. vote and even the United States's own positions made for painfully contrived explanations from U.S. representatives. When Lebanon introduced the draft resolution last month, State Department spokesman Phillip J. Crowley said in oxymoronic fashion that the issues at stake are best resolved “not through the unilateral declarations, even if those unilateral declarations come in the form of a multilateral setting.” In her explanation of the U.S. vote at the Security Council on Friday, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice devoted nearly all of her statement to saying how much the United States supports the very things—an end to settlement construction and a resumption of negotiations—that the resolution her government just vetoed called for. In the few words that were a stab at an explanation, she said the resolution risked “hardening the positions of both sides” and “could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations,” without addressing how the Israeli position on the immediate issue at hand could get any harder than it is now, and without noting that the unilateral construction of facts on disputed ground is the very antithesis of settling matters through negotiation. Rice also stated that “we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians,” seemingly oblivious to the fact that the vetoed resolution attempted to do no such thing and instead explicitly called for use of the very negotiating channels and mechanisms (such as the Quartet's “roadmap”) that the United States has endorsed. Crowley and Rice are able public servants; one can only feel sorry for officials whose jobs at times like this require them to emit such blather.

Unofficial commentary defending the veto has been just as contrived. The Washington Post editorial page, for example, found a way to say that Israel's continued illegal colonization and the embarrassment that the United States suffers when it blocks international criticism of the colonization is somehow Abu Mazin's fault. And this not long after leaked negotiating documents indicate that the Palestinians had been so forthcoming in talking final settlement issues with Israel that its negotiators were embarrassed in front of their own people for making so many concessions. There is reason to doubt the willingness to negotiate a settlement, but that reason rests on the side that has the guns and has the territory, and through its actions at least as much as through its words shows that it would like to hang on to the territory indefinitely.

The veto doesn't even keep the issues at hand out of the multilateral chambers of the United Nations. Without other avenues of recourse, the Palestinians are likely to move the issue to the General Assembly, where Friday's 14-0 vote will be amplified by another lopsided vote that will remind everyone of how isolated the United States is as long as it carries Israel's water on the issue.

The U.S. vote confirms in the eyes of just about the entire world that the United States is unwilling to act as an honest broker on Arab-Israeli issues whenever doing so annoys the Israeli government of the day. This makes fruitful negotiations less, not more, likely.