“This is the saddest day of my life since becoming prime minister.” The leader of Israel was referring to the moment the U.S. ambassador to his country delivered a letter informing him that the United States was days away from unveiling a sweeping proposal for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The prime minister’s response was blunt: “You may tell the president and the secretary of state that I am astonished that your government did not see fit to indicate that such an initiative was in the making or to consult with the government of Israel at any state of its elaboration. This is entirely unacceptable.”
The prime minister tried to buy time. But when he was informed that the announcement was moved up by two days, his outrage grew: “Is this the way to treat a friend? Is this the way to treat an ally?” he asked the ambassador. “Your government consorts with our despotic enemies and yet you choose to ignore us on a matter of vital import to our future. What kind of discourse is this between democratic peoples who purport to cherish common values? Is this the way to make peace? We do not deserve this kind of treatment.”
The angry and bitter response was not from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a proposal by President Barack Obama or Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016. It was Menachem Begin responding to President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
All American presidents and Israeli prime ministers have disagreed on occasion, some severely. President Dwight Eisenhower refused to talk to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion and threatened to cut ties with Israel over the 1956 Suez War. President John F. Kennedy warned that the relationship “would be seriously jeopardized” over Israel’s nuclear program. When Israel was reluctant to engage with Egypt, President Richard Nixon said that Israel “should remember that your pipeline of military supplies is liable to dry up.”
Reagan, in addition to presenting a peace plan over Israel’s objections, twice suspended the delivery of military aircraft to protest Israeli actions in Lebanon, and he said that “the immediate adoption of a settlements freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in [peace] talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.”
President George H.W. Bush cut American loan guarantees to Israel over settlements. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon publicly accused President George W. Bush of selling out Israel to appease the Arabs, and Bush requested an Israeli settlement freeze, in support of which he assembled a broad coalition that included all of the 15 member states of the U.N. Security Council and the members of the Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.
This history reflects the reality that while the U.S. and Israel are close allies they are also independent, vibrant democracies. Personal and policy disagreements are inevitable. All presidents permitted the passage of U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of and opposed by Israel, some with language nearly identical to the most recent Security Council resolution, 2334. What is remarkable is not the disagreements but the strong and enduring nature of the relationship. The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.
Despite his contentious relationship with Netanyahu, Obama has presided over the most cooperative relationship between U.S. and Israeli military, security and intelligence officials in history. He increased aid to Israel to enable it to complete development and early deployment of its Iron Dome missile defense system. He helped shield Israel from the dangerous and inaccurate accusations of the Goldstone Report. He was instrumental in Israel’s becoming a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Recently, he signed the largest ever aid package to Israel.
The reporting and commentary about Resolution 2334 have been highly inaccurate, particularly in two respects. The first is the assertion that, by not vetoing the resolution, Obama reversed a longstanding American policy of preventing the passage of resolutions critical of Israel. While the U.S. rightly protects Israel from bias at the U.N., our shield is not, and never has been, absolute. Since 1967, American presidents have let more than 70 resolutions viewed by Israel as biased, flawed, or wrong pass in the Security Council, over half the time even voting “yes.” Of those resolutions, only one passed during the Obama administration, the lowest number for any president.
Also inaccurate is the claim that 2334’s language has uniquely eroded Israel’s claims to territories it captured during the 1967 war, including in Jerusalem, where the Western Wall and other holy sites are located. The resolution states, “The establishment of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity.” That language is not new.
In 1980, during the Carter administration, the U.S. voted “yes” on Resolution 465, which stated that Israeli measures in “the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and … constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” The Geneva Convention prohibits an occupying party from transferring its civilian population into territories it occupies. That’s why Israel’s settlements are viewed as lacking legal validity.
In 1986, during the Reagan administration, the U.S. abstained, thereby enabling passage of Resolution 592, which “reaffirms that the Geneva Convention … is applicable to the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem.”
Resolutions with nearly identical language on territory and Jerusalem passed during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Many in Israel and elsewhere strongly disagree with the characterization of the territory involved as “occupied.” But virtually all the world’s governments, including the U.S., view it that way, and have done so since 1967.
Nonetheless, we believe the U.S. should have vetoed Resolution 2334, even though the policy it sets forth is consistent with a half century of American policy of opposition to Israeli settlements under five Republican and four Democratic presidents. Our concern is that rather than moving the sides toward the negotiations that will be necessary to resolve the conflict — which is the stated purpose of American policy — it would, to the contrary, drive them even further apart than they already are.
Emboldened by what they perceive as a victory, Palestinian officials now openly discuss an accelerated drive to achieve a state through international institutions. They already have raised their flag at the U.N. and secured recognition by 137 countries. But that statehood, and its recognition, is in name only. A real state where it matters, on the ground, can be achieved only with the participation of Israel, which controls the territory. The Palestinian leadership must confront and act on that reality by entering direct negotiations. Settlements are an obstacle to peace, but they’re just one of many important issues on which the parties should engage as soon as possible.
The misinformation widely disseminated in the U.S. and Israel about Resolution 2334 is unwarranted and unwise. Israel is already isolated in the Muslim world, now one-fifth of the world’s population and soon to be one-third. The prime minister’s decision to retaliate against some of the countries that voted for the resolution prolongs the international debate about settlements and further emboldens the Palestinian pursuit of statehood through international institutions. That is contrary to Israel’s interests, especially since it is unlikely that Israel can inflict sufficient political or economic pain on any of those countries to cause them to reverse their decision or to act differently in the future. Indeed, the silence in the world is deafening. In the weeks since the resolution passed, of the nearly 200 countries in the world, only one — Australia — has said it would have voted “no” on the resolution, but even Australia did not express affirmative support for Israel’s actions on settlements.
Kerry was correct in his assertion that the two-state solution remains the only viable way to end this conflict. There is no alternative to partition. That is consistent with the policy set forth by President George W. Bush in a speech to Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jerusalem in 2008:
“The point of departure for permanent status negotiations … is clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the State of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent. It is vital that each side understands that satisfying the other’s fundamental objectives is key to a successful agreement. Security for Israel and viability for the Palestinian state are in the mutual interest of both parties.”
Bush’s words remain true and relevant. Sooner or later, Israelis and Palestinians will come to that conclusion. Let us all hope and pray that they do so before there is further bloodshed and destruction.
George J. Mitchell was the U.S. Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995 and U.S. special envoy for Middle East peace from 2009 to 2011. Alon Sachar was an adviser to the special envoy for Middle East peace from 2009 to 2011 and to the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2012. They are authors of “A Path To Peace — A Brief History of the Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and a Way Forward in the Middle East.” This piece was originally published in The Boston Globe.