At the UN on Thursday, Egypt decided to withdraw from a Security Council vote the proposed resolution calling on Israel to “cease all settlement activities” in the West Bank – a resolution that if passed could prompt Arab nations to seek enforcement mechanisms, and provoke a security crisis for the region. The postponement of the vote is potentially indefinite.
This is unalloyed good news. Three comments on it (strike that, four):
1. Donald Trump has been given a lot of credit for making this happen. While that’s not unfair, I do think it might be a bit of an exaggeration. I believe his influence was a positive one; he came out with a brief, perfectly executed statement on the issue on Thursday morning, urging a U.S. veto if the resolution passed:
And there are multiple reports that Trump was part of the effort to get Egypt – which sponsored the resolution – to pull it from voting. The Reuters report (linked above) cites an unnamed diplomatic source as saying the Trump spoke to Egyptian President al-Sisi about it on the phone. According to CNN, Israel also asked Trump to appeal to the Obama White House to guarantee a veto.
CNN cited analysts characterizing it as “unprecedented” for Trump to comment publicly on the matter:
“It’s unprecedented that a President-elect would pronounce on a matter of US policy before he became president,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, “let alone say publicly that the administration should not vote for the resolution.”
But this theme in the news coverage overemphasizes U.S. politics, in my view, and obscures a systemic, geopolitical factor that was at least as important – and actually explains “unprecedented” actions.
2. Egypt and other regional nations (like Saudi Arabia and Jordan) have good reasons of their own to want to hold off on the resolution in question. Egypt may have sponsored this UN legislative effort, but there are more things happening than the American election, and a lot of them have happened in the Middle East in the last 12 months. Each of them makes the potential aftermath of the resolution more explosive.
Just to survey the major and most directly pertinent ones: Mahmoud Abbas and the PA are largely superannuated in the changing context of the Middle East. There’s no well-structured “Palestinian” political entity to rally round at this point.
The main thing keeping Abbas & Co viable was the mainstreaming effect of U.S. support – the potential it suggested for political credibility and responsible statehood. But U.S. support has no mainstreaming effect now. We have Obama to thank for that.
Egypt, meanwhile, is dealing with ISIS and other transnational groups all over the Sinai (besides internal Egyptian jihadis), and has to worry about Iranian-backed instigation as well.
The UN resolution would launch a feeding frenzy to define who benefits from a weakening of Israel in the West Bank. And that frenzy would be a daily earthquake for Egypt. It would paint a bigger target on Jordan’s back too, and Jordan is in no shape to handle that strain. The Saudis have their hands full with Yemen, and new worries with the encroachment of Iran into Iraq – now hundreds of miles closer to the Saudis’ remotest border. They don’t need another headache.
This settlements resolution would only make sense in the context of a strong America keeping the old, Pax Americana peace. That condition might have made its ramifications containable. But that condition is gone.
None of these points by itself (or even taken together) means that Egypt would have decided to postpone the vote without pressure. But these realities do mean it wouldn’t have taken nearly as much pressure as it might have taken in the pre-2011 stability context, to get Egypt or another regional sponsor to back off.
The reason Egypt would want to know Trump’s take on the matter is precisely that approving this resolution would be further destabilizing in an already chaotic situation – and Obama won’t be there for that. No one cares now what Obama would do if security in the Middle East went further south. Trump will be there, and it’s Trump the other chiefs of state want to hear from.
It would be one thing if there were any reason to expect continuity between Obama’s stance and Trump’s. But there’s not. (And don’t forget, that’s because Obama’s stance is so at odds with the long-term trend of U.S. policy. See point three below.)
The analysts cited by CNN spoke as if the stately-paced kabuki dances of the Pax Americana were driving the train today. They’re not. Asking the incoming president what his posture is, and not using the outgoing guy’s posture as a decision factor – that’s how things unfold in a dynamic situation, in which statesmen are dealing with unprecedented and unpredictable elements.
That’s why “unprecedented” things get done.
3. In light of this reality, what really stands out as unnecessary and “off” is the effort the Obama White House made on Thursday to emphasize that it was planning to abstain from the vote; i.e., not guarantee interdicting the resolution with a veto. In fact, as reported by numerous outlets, John Kerry was going to make a major foreign policy speech, assumed to be addressing the decision against a U.S. veto, just prior to the scheduled UN vote. (Since Kerry canceled the speech when the vote was canceled, there can be little question what the speech was about.)
There was no need in any conventional diplomatic sense for such communications. For one thing, it’s Obama who’s bucking decades of consistent U.S. policy here. The UN resolution would have been a one-sided swipe at Israel, destabilizing and deleterious to both Israeli and regional security (such as the latter now is). Even aside from the unfairness and anti-precedential bias of the resolution’s premise about settlements and Israeli sovereignty, it would be explosively irresponsible to adopt it in current conditions.
The obvious course would have been for the administration to just shut up: refrain from clarifying that Obama wanted to abstain. Let it go.
Instead, the point that there would have been no U.S. veto was obtrusively “leaked,” apparently because Obama wanted to make it.
Probably to reassure the base he plans to tend and encourage once he’s left the White House. It looks like a signal that Obama’s post-presidency organization will be available to help push this resolution, and others in a similar vein, in the UN. Obama probably wants to galvanize Democrats in Congress on related matters too. (Indeed, the organizers he runs with almost certainly have a concept incorporating the UN, international bodies, NGOs, and plenty of Soros money to corner the Democrats of the U.S. Congress – and in state legislatures – with prepackaged global schemes for every policy issue under the sun. Beyond that, an issue like Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is exactly the sort this organization will approach with its signature methods.)
4. The final point comes from a later-breaking story that some UN Security Council members were upset when Egypt postponed the resolution vote. They’re demanding, basically, that Egypt reschedule a vote or they’ll know the reason why.
Note about these members that they are all from outside the Middle East, and have radical governments (Venezuela, Senegal), anti-Israel and increasingly Islamist histories (Malaysia), or the political profile of the West’s deluded Arcadian left (New Zealand).
The latter is actually one of the most dangerous factors on the planet right now, because it is so extremely complacent, and so terribly wrong. The precarious condition of not-yet-general war in the Eastern hemisphere can’t keep taking more gooses from the cattle prod. But New Zealand, in the tradition of Hollande and Merkel, seems to think that careers of incendiary ideological posturing can just continue without the fraying general order eventually collapsing altogether.