A UN Security Council resolution, calling for a ban on illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, has passed, with NZ taking a major role. Phil Smith outlines the background and the blowback.
New Zealand has dared to go where even Egypt’s strongman, President el-Sisi, feared to tread. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi put a forward a resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlement building, but after an incredibly inappropriate call from Donald Trump, el-Sisi withdrew it again. Exactly how Trump achieved that is anyone’s guess, but America’s $1.5 billion aid package to Egypt may have been threatened.
President el-Sisi said he wanted to let Trump’s incoming administration have first crack at the issue. It was obviously an excuse. Trump’s nomination for Ambassador to Israel is a hardliner who wants more settlement construction and who has compared Jews who advocate for a ‘two-state peace’ to Capos (Jews who assisted in Nazi death-camps).
When el-Sisi retreated, New Zealand stepped up. Together with Venezuela, Malaysia and Senegal, New Zealand called for a vote on the resolution, and for the first time since the Carter administration, the US declined to veto a rebuke over illegal Israeli settlements.
The US noted that settlement construction had accelerated since the US vetoed a similar resolution in 2001, and that the Obama administration has been warning Israel for eight years that this ‘trend-line’ was both making peace more difficult and isolating Israel from the international community.
The foundations of the settlements
Settling population in militarily-occupied territory is contrary to the Geneva Convention, to international law and previous United Nations rulings.
Settlement building is usually strategic. Settlements create ‘facts-on-the-ground’, making it more difficult to give back captured territory (in this case, territory captured during the 1967 Six Day War). Hardliners believe the territory is theirs by God-given right, but its return, at least in part, would be necessary for a lasting peace based on a two-state solution. The tracts that are currently Palestinian controlled areas are an unworkable, disconnected patchwork of territories.
Settlements also increase local conflict by expropriating land and resources to construct and sustain the townships. Moderate Israeli administrations have tended to restrict or demolish settlements, while hawkish governments look the other way, or – like the current one – are gung-ho on expansions which push Palestinians into an ever-diminishing corner.
Former US President Jimmy Carter has repeatedly stressed that peace in Israel/Palestine is only likely when the Palestinians also have a viable state, where middle class citizens have a reason to hope and work for a future. Some form of two state solution has been American policy for decades.
Seeing this may be about to change, and after significant antagonism from Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama apparently believes it is time to allow a line in the sand.
A few years ago, after the successful Bougainville peace talks, New Zealand imagined a role for itself as an international peace broker. It was a nice idea that turned out to be harder than it sounded, but it marked an increased New Zealand confidence to act independently, for good purpose.
This week’s action is a further brave step from New Zealand. It has no obvious ulterior motives, but instead seems an attempt to simply do the right thing and bugger the consequences. A nation like New Zealand cannot throw its feather-weight around internationally in order to win friends. Frequently, the opposite is achieved. A friend won with one action is alienated with the next, and nations often remember sleights more strongly than support.
The blowback has already begun. Israel is apoplectic and has recalled its envoys to New Zealand and Senegal, and stopped its Senegal aid programme. It called the resolution “despicable” and “an evil decree”. The Israeli Ambassador to the UN said the vote was “a victory for terror, a victory for hatred and violence.”
New Zealand was already in Israel’s bad books. In 2014 Israel refused to accept New Zealand’s ambassador because he was also to act as an envoy to the Palestinian Authority. In October 2015, Israeli officials reprimanded our Ambassador after New Zealand dared propose a Security Council resolution that dared encourage a return to peace negotiations. Palestinian supporters were equally upset, seeing the wording as supporting Israel.
But this time is worse. Israeli-New Zealand relations haven’t been so poor since 2004, when New Zealand imprisoned ‘Mossad spies’ for attempting to fraudulently obtain a New Zealand passport. After a year, Israel apologised and relationships were slowly mended.
This new rift may take longer. Much of the anger is being directed at the US, where President Obama could have chosen to veto the resolution. But Netanyahu’s conservative government will not take kindly to us fronting a resolution that pointedly calls East Jerusalem “occupied Palestinian territory”.
New Zealand’s government will have known blowback was likely. It has decided that, if you ask to be on the Security Council you need to appear from behind the parapet and take a stand.
In an era where the world’s mood seems to be trending towards resentment, aggression and extremism, a country wins few friends by calling for tolerance or asking for restraint. But that doesn’t mean that working for peace and goodwill isn’t the right thing to do