Netanyahu struggles to defend settlement policy

The prime minister lambasted the Obama administration Sunday for the second straight day, after the stinging UN Security Council resolution Friday.
Dan Balilty/AFP/Getty Images
The prime minister lambasted the Obama administration Sunday for the second straight day, after the stinging UN Security Council resolution Friday.

JERUSALEM — For years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, a conservative, has competed domestically with his right-wing rivals in backing settlement building all over the occupied West Bank while professing support for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Now, with the stinging UN Security Council resolution Friday condemning Israeli settlement construction, Israeli politicians and analysts on the right, the left, and in the political center say Netanyahu’s game might soon be up.

The Israeli right, feeling empowered by the advent of the Trump administration, which is expected to be more sympathetic to Israel’s current policies, is pushing Netanyahu to abandon the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, long considered the only viable solution to the conflict.


For a second consecutive day Sunday, Netanyahu lambasted the departing Obama administration, publicly accusing it of having orchestrated the Security Council resolution, despite denials from Washington.

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The United States refrained from using its veto power, as it had done many times before to shield Israel, and abstained in the 14-to-0 vote.

“From the information that we have, we have no doubt that the Obama administration initiated it, stood behind it, coordinated on the wording, and demanded that it be passed,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

Referring to the US secretary of state, Netanyahu added, “As I told John Kerry on Thursday, friends don’t take friends to the Security Council,” and he said he was looking forward to working with President-elect Donald Trump’s administration when it takes office next month.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned ambassadors of countries that had voted in favor of the resolution for personal meetings with ministry officials in Jerusalem, despite the Christmas holiday, which some of those countries celebrate.


In a highly unusual move, Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, summoned the US ambassador to Israel, Daniel B. Shapiro, for a meeting, though it was not immediately clear when that would take place.

Netanyahu also instructed his ministers to suspend their diplomatic activities and contacts with counterparts from the countries that had voted for the resolution for the next three weeks, until the US administration changes, and to suspend travel to those countries, according to Israeli news reports.

Netanyahu is hoping for a new American policy under the incoming president, Donald Trump, who has supported Israel’s nationalist right and its West Bank settlements.

Israeli news reports Sunday said the defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had instructed Israel’s agencies to sever contacts with Palestinian Authority representatives on civil, not security, matters. The ministry did not immediately confirm the reports.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official and the Palestinians’ veteran negotiator, called on Israel “to seize the opportunity, to wake up, to stop the violence, to stop settlements, and to resume negotiations.” Netanyahu says he is ready for negotiations anytime but with no preconditions.


Naftali Bennett, the leader of the prosettlement Jewish Home party in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, with whom Netanyahu and his Likud Party compete for votes, is goading him to take on more extreme positions like annexing parts of the West Bank, adding to a sense in Israel that the real Netanyahu might have to stand up and decide which side he is on.

“He has to choose between the international community and Bennett,” said Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“It is not an easy choice, but he has to make a choice,” Avineri said, adding, “Is Israel going to alienate itself from the whole world for the sake of settlement activity? And it is the whole world. Is this what Zionism is about?”

The Security Council vote seemed to have caught Israel off-guard.

“I hope for Netanyahu’s sake [and also for ours] that he knows the truth at least deep in his heart — it was the chronicle of a failure foretold,” Ben Caspit, a political commentator, wrote in the Maariv newspaper Sunday.

Many commentators said the Security Council vote partly reflected a history of conflict between Netanyahu and President Obama over the settlements and Netanyahu’s anger over the Iranian nuclear deal.

They also pointed to Netanyahu’s increasingly vocal backing for the settler cause. That includes his advancement of highly contentious legislation, known as the Regulation Bill, that would retroactively legalize settler outposts and homes built on privately owned Palestinian land and force the owners to accept compensation.

Netanyahu and his attorney general had previously warned that the bill, which recently passed a first reading in parliament, contravenes international law and could land Israeli officials in the defendant dock of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“After he said it, he rushed to vote in favor of the bill. Why?” Caspit wrote in Maariv. “Because of Bennett. The fear of the possibility that he would not be able to siphon seats from Bennett next time on Election Day caused him to act like a small-time grocery owner, instead of a national leader.”

Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister and a leader of the center-left Zionist Union, wrote on Facebook after the Security Council vote, “The Security Council decision is bad for Israel and it is the result of Netanyahu’s surrender to the extreme right.”

Even Haggai Segal, a prominent settler and editor-in-chief of a right-wing newspaper, Makor Rishon, has written in recent months that the Regulation Bill had “no chance” because it would be invalidated by Israel’s Supreme Court and would be used by the International Criminal Court “to incriminate Israel for war crimes.”