September 22, 2017
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US Isolation

By Noam Chomsky


On 23 December 2016, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2334 unanimously, US abstaining. The Resolution reaffirmed “that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East [and] Calls once more upon Israel, as the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, to rescind its previous measures and to desist from taking any action which would result in changing the legal status and geographical nature and materially affecting the demographic composition of the Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, and, in particular, not to transfer parts of its own civilian population into the occupied Arab territories.”

Reaffirmed. A matter of some import.

It is important to recognize that 2334 is nothing new. The quote above is from UNSC Resolution 446, 12 March 1979, reiterated in essence in Resolution 2334. Resolution 446 passed 12-0 with the US abstaining, joined by the UK and Norway. Several resolutions followed reaffirming 446. One of particular interest a year later was even stronger than 446-2334, calling on Israel “to dismantle the existing settlements” (UNSC Resolution 465, March 1980), this time passed unanimously, no abstentions.

The Government of Israel did not have to wait for the UN Security Council (and more recently, the World Court) to learn that its settlements are in gross violation of international law. In September 1967, only weeks after Israel’s conquest of the occupied territories, in a Top Secret document the government was informed by the Legal Adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the distinguished international lawyer Theodor Meron, that “civilian settlement in the administered territories [Israel’s term for the occupied territories] contravenes explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention.” Meron explained further that the prohibition against transfer of settlers to the occupied territories “is categorical and not conditional upon the motives for the transfer or its objectives. Its purpose is to prevent settlement in occupied territory of citizens of the occupying state.” Meron therefore advised that “If it is decided to go ahead with Jewish settlement in the administered territories, it seems to me vital, therefore, that settlement is carried out by military and not civilian entities. It is also important, in my view, that such settlement is in the framework of camps and is, on the face of it, of a temporary rather than permanent nature.”

Meron’s advice was followed. Settlement has often been disguised by the subterfuge suggested, the “temporary military entities” turning out later to be civilian settlements. The device of military settlement also has the advantage of providing a means to expel Palestinians from their lands on the pretext that a military zone is being established. Deceit was scrupulously planned, beginning as soon as Meron’s authoritative report was delivered to the government. As documented by Israeli scholar Avi Raz, in September 1967, `on the day a second civilian settlement came into being in the West Bank, the government decided that “as a ‘cover’ for the purpose of [Israel’s] diplomatic campaign” the new settlements should be presented as army settlements and the settlers should be given the necessary instructions in case they were asked about the nature of their settlement. The Foreign Ministry directed Israel’s diplomatic missions to present the settlements in the occupied territories as military “strongpoints” and to emphasize their alleged security importance.’

Similar practices continue to the present, while “supporters of Israel” pretend not to see.

The Security Council orders in 1979-80 to dismantle existing settlements and to establish no new ones were followed at once by a rapid expansion of settlements by both of the major Israeli political blocs, Labor and Likud, always with lavish US material support.

The primary differences today are that the US is now alone against the whole world, and that it is a different world. Israel’s flagrant violations of Security Council orders, and of international law, are by now far more extreme than they were 35 years ago, and are arousing far greater condemnation in much of the world. The contents of Resolution 446-2334 are therefore taken more seriously. Hence the revealing reactions to 2334, and to Secretary of State John Kerry’s explanation of the US vote. In the Arab world, the reactions seem to have been muted: We’ve been here before. In Europe they were generally supportive. In the US and Israel, in contrast, coverage and commentary were extensive, and there was considerable hysteria. These are further indications of the increasing isolation of the US on the world stage. Under Obama, that is. Under Trump US isolation will likely increase further, and indeed already did, even before he took office.

Trump’s most significant step in advancing US isolation was on November 8, when he won two victories. The lesser victory was in the US, where he won the electoral vote (while losing the popular vote by close to 3 million; his victory was based on regressive features of the US political system). The greater victory was in Marrakech, Morocco, where some 200 nations were meeting to try to put some real content into the December 2015 Paris agreements on climate change, which were left as promises rather than the intended treaty because the Republican Congress would not accept binding commitments.

As the electoral votes came in on November 8, the Marrakech conference shifted from its substantive program to the question whether there could even be any meaningful action to deal with the ominous threat of environmental catastrophe now that the most powerful country in world history is calling quits. That was, surely, Trump’s greatest victory on November 8, one of truly momentous import. It also established US isolation on the most severe problem humans have ever faced in their short history on earth. The world rested its hopes for leadership in China, now that the Leader of the Free World declared that it will not only withdraw from the effort but, with Trump’s election, will move forcefully to accelerate the race to disaster.

An amazing spectacle, which passed with virtually no comment.

The fact that the US is now alone in rejecting the international consensus reaffirmed in UNSC 2334 is another sign of increasing US isolation.

Just why Obama chose abstention rather than veto is an open question: we do not have direct evidence. But there are some plausible guesses. There had been some ripples of surprise (and ridicule) after Obama’s February 2011 veto of a UNSC Resolution calling for implementation of official US policy, and he may have felt that it would be too much to repeat it if he is to salvage anything of his tattered legacy among sectors of the population that have some concern for international law and human rights. It is also worth remembering that among liberal Democrats, if not Congress, and particularly among the young, opinion about Israel-Palestine has been moving towards criticism of Israeli policies in recent years, so much so that “60% of Democrats support imposing sanctions or more serious action” in reaction to Israeli settlements, according to a December 2016 Brookings Institute poll. By now the core of support for Israeli policies in the US has shifted to the far right, including the evangelical base of the Republican Party. Perhaps these were factors in Obama’s decision.

The 2016 abstention aroused furor in Israel and in the US Congress as well, both Republicans and leading Democrats, including proposals to defund the UN in retaliation for the world’s crime. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu denounced Obama for his “underhanded, anti-Israel” actions. His office accused Obama of “colluding” behind the scenes with this “gang-up” by the UNSC, producing particles of “evidence” that hardly rise to the level of sick humor. A senior Israeli official added that the abstention “revealed the true face of the Obama administration,” adding that “now we can understand what we have been dealing with for the past eight years.”

Reality is rather different. Obama has in fact broken all records in support for Israel, both diplomatic and financial. The reality is described accurately by Middle East specialist of the Financial Times David Gardner: “Mr Obama’s personal dealings with Mr Netanyahu may often have been poisonous, but he has been the most pro-Israel of presidents: the most prodigal with military aid and reliable in wielding the US veto at the Security Council… The election of Donald Trump has so far brought little more than turbo-frothed tweets to bear on this and other geopolitical knots. But the auguries are ominous. An irredentist government in Israel tilted towards the ultra-right is now joined by a national populist administration in Washington fire-breathing Islamophobia.”

Public commentary on Obama’s decision and Kerry’s justification was split. Supporters generally agreed with Thomas Friedman that “Israel is clearly now on a path toward absorbing the West Bank’s 2.8 million Palestinians….posing a demographic and democratic challenge.” In a New York Times review of the state of the two-state solution defended by Obama-Kerry (and UNSC 2334) and threatened with extinction by Israeli policies, Max Fisher asks “Are there other solutions?” He then turns to the possible alternatives, all “multiple versions of the so-called one-state solution” that poses the “demographic and democratic challenge” of too many Arabs – perhaps soon a majority – in a “Jewish and democratic state.”

In the conventional fashion, commentators assume that there are two alternatives: the two-state solution advocated by the world, or some version of the “one-state solution.” Ignored consistently is a third alternative, the one that Israel has been implementing quite systematically since shortly after the 1967 war and that is now very clearly taking shape before our eyes: a Greater Israel, sooner or later incorporated into Israel proper, including a vastly expanded Jerusalem (already annexed in violation of Security Council orders) and any other territories that Israel finds valuable, while excluding areas of heavy Palestinian population concentration and removing Palestinians within the areas scheduled for incorporation within Greater Israel. As in neo-colonies generally, Palestinian elites will be able to enjoy western standards in Ramallah, with “90 per cent of the population of the West Bank living in 165 separate ‘islands’, ostensibly under the control of the [Palestinian Authority]” but actual Israeli control, as reported by Nathan Thrall, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. Gaza will remain under crushing siege, separated from the West Bank in violation of the Oslo Accords.

The third alternative is another piece of the “reality” described by David Gardner.

In an interesting and revealing comment, Netanyahu denounced the “gang-up” of the world as proof of “old-world bias against Israel,” a phrase reminiscent of Donald Rumsfeld’s Old Europe-New Europe distinction in 2003.

It will be recalled that the states of Old Europe were the bad guys, the major states of Europe, which dared to respect the opinions of the overwhelming majority of their populations and thus refused to join the US in the crime of the century, the invasion of Iraq. The states of New Europe were the good guys, which overruled an even larger majority and obeyed the master. The most honorable of the good guys was Spain’s Jose Maria Aznar, who rejected virtually unanimous opposition to the war in Spain and was rewarded by being invited to join Bush and Blair in announcing the invasion.

This quite illuminating display of utter contempt for democracy, along with others at the same time, passed virtually unnoticed, understandably. The task at the time was to praise Washington for its passionate dedication to democracy, as illustrated by “democracy promotion” in Iraq, which suddenly became the party line after the “single question” (will Saddam give up his WMD?) was answered the wrong way.

Netanyahu is adopting much the same stance. The old world that is biased against Israel is the entire UN Security Council; more specifically, anyone in the world who has some lingering commitment to international law and human rights. Luckily for the Israeli far right, that excludes the US Congress and – very forcefully – the President-elect and his associates.

The Israeli government is of course cognizant of these developments. It is therefore seeking to shift its base of support to authoritarian states such as Singapore, China and Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist India, now becoming a very natural ally with its drift towards ultranationalism, reactionary internal policies, and hatred of Islam. The reasons for Israel’s looking in this direction for support are outlined by Mark Heller, principal research associate at Tel Aviv’s Institution for National Security Studies. “Over the long term,” he explains, “there are problems for Israel in its relations with western Europe and with the U.S.,” while in contrast, the important Asian countries “don’t seem to indicate much interest about how Israel gets along with the Palestinians, Arabs, or anyone else.” In short, China, India, Singapore and other favored allies are less influenced by the kinds of liberal and humane concerns that pose increasing threats to Israel.

The tendencies developing in world order merit some attention. As noted, the US is becoming even more isolated than it has been in recent years, when US-run polls – unreported in the US but surely known in Washington – revealed that world opinion regarded the US as by far the leading threat to world peace, no one else even close. Under Obama, the US is now alone in abstention on the illegal Israel settlements, against a unanimous UNSC. With Trump and his bipartisan congressional supporters, the US will be even more isolated in the world in support of Israeli crimes. Since November 8, the US is isolated on the much more crucial matter of global warming, a threat to the survival of organized human life in anything like its present form. If Trump makes good on his promise to exit from the Iran deal, it is likely that the other participants will persist, leaving the US still more isolated from Europe. The US is also much more isolated from its Latin American “backyard” than in the past, and will be even more isolated if Trump backs off from Obama’s halting steps to normalize relations with Cuba, undertaken to ward off the likelihood that the US would be pretty much excluded from hemispheric organizations because of its continuing assault on Cuba, in international isolation.

Much the same is happening in Asia, as even close US allies (apart from Japan), even the UK, flock to the China-based Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and the China-based Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in this case including Japan. The China-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization incorporates the Central Asian states, Siberia with its rich resources, India, Pakistan, and soon probably Iran and perhaps Turkey. The SCO has rejected the US request for observer status and demanded that the US remove all military bases from the region.

Immediately after the Trump election, we witnessed the interesting spectacle of German chancellor Angela Merkel taking the lead in lecturing Washington on liberal values and human rights. Meanwhile, since November 8, the world looks to China for leadership in saving the world from environmental catastrophe, while the US, in splendid isolation once again, devotes itself to undermining these efforts.

US isolation is not complete, of course. As was made very clear in the reaction to Trump’s electoral victory, the US has the enthusiastic support of the xenophobic ultra-right in Europe, including its neo-fascist elements. And the return of the right in parts of Latin America offers the US opportunities for alliances there as well. And the US retains its close alliance with the dictatorship of the Gulf and Egypt, and with Israel, which is also separating itself from more liberal and democratic sectors in Europe and linking with authoritarian regimes that are not concerned with Israel’s violations of international law and harsh attacks on elementary human rights.

The developing picture suggests the emergence of a New World Order, one that is rather different from the usual portrayals within the doctrinal system.


- Originally appeared at Chomsky.info