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Take Action: U.S. Favoring Negotiations at UN Instead of Accountability

September 24th, 2009

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This week’s meeting of the UN General Assembly included important developments in U.S. policy toward Palestine/Israel. The Obama Administration decided to press for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in the absence of a settlement freeze and appears to be doing so as a substitute for, not as a complement to, accountability for human rights violations documented in the Goldstone Report by the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

It's our job to tell the Obama Administration that its push for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations cannot come at the expense of fundamental human rights, respect for international law, and accountability for war crimes. Next Tuesday, the United States will vote in the UN Human Rights Council to accept or reject the Goldstone Report's recommendations for accountability for human rights violations committed by all parties to the Gaza conflict.

Both individuals and organizations can take action by sending a message to support the recommendations of the Goldstone Report to Ambassador Susan Rice, Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations, by clicking here. Note: We will be delivering our open letter to Ambassador Rice tomorrow. If your organization would like to endorse it, then please do so by COB today by clicking here.

Please read on below for a more extended analysis of policy developments at the United Nations this week.



Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas in New York, Sept. 22
Since the early days of the Obama Administration, many analysts have been surprised by the consistency and forcefulness with which the President and his foreign policy team have demanded that Israel freeze all settlement activities in the 

occupied Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem, describing it as a rare public breach in the normally tight U.S-Israel relationship.

Although President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell didn't insist that a settlement freeze was a "precondition" for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it was clear that they viewed it as an integral step towards reviving negotiations.

Take, for example, Clinton's statement earlier this year: "With respect to settlements, the President…wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease.

After several months of fruitlessly pressing for an Israeli settlement freeze, however, the Obama Administration did an abrupt volte face earlier this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting. Prior to his trilateral meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Obama scrapped his plan for an Israeli settlement freeze prior to negotiations, declaring that: "Simply put it is past time to talk about starting negotiations -- it is time to move forward. It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that’s necessary to achieve our goals. Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. And more importantly, we must give those negotiations the opportunity to succeed."

It’s true that Obama, in his speech before the UN General Assembly, reiterated his stance that “
we continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” and added that his goal is the establishment of a Palestinian state that “ends the occupation that began in 1967.” Nevertheless, the decision to push for negotiations in the absence of an explicit Israeli commitment to freeze settlements represents a policy reversal.

This reversal in policy begs the question: Does the Obama Adminstration have a coherent strategy for achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace or is it muddling along? On the one hand, if a settlement freeze was necessary to set a "favorable context" for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, then how can successful negotiations take place while Israel continues confiscating Palestinian land and demolishing Palestinian homes? On the other hand, if a settlement freeze wasn't necessary after all to resume negotiations, then why did the Obama Administration spend so much political capital and nearly one quarter of its term trying to achieve it?

Although certainly a climb-down, it might have been less of one than it first appears since the Obama Administration never used any of the real pressure points and policy tools available to it to obtain the settlement freeze in the first place. If it were serious about achieving a settlement freeze, then the Obama Administration should have listened to the US Campaign’s advice to end military aid to Israel or, at the least, condition it as the quickest and surest way to achieve stated U.S. policy goals.

However, asked on Tuesday if Israel stood to loose U.S. support for not agreeing to freeze settlements, a seemingly exasperated Mitchell declined to consider this as a possible option, going only so far as to state that "The consequences of decisions made by the Israelis, of course, are judgments that they will have to make." Israel will continue to defy U.S. policy goals as long as U.S. diplomacy is guided by all carrots and no sticks.

Now we face the prospect of the Obama Administration exerting substantial pressure on the Palestinians to return to the negotiating table while Israeli settlement construction continues apace. This contradictory combination has already proved itself to be a losing proposition and was one of the major reasons for the failure of the Oslo "peace process" in the 1990's. This is a curious slipup for an Administration intent on not repeating the policy mistakes of the Clinton and Bush Administration on Palestine/Israel policy.

As much if not more worrying than the Obama Administration's call for negotiations prior to a settlement freeze is the fact that Israel's illegal blockade of the occupied Gaza Strip seems to have slipped off its radar screen completely. Early in his Administration, Obama avowed that “As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza's border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce.” Yet, eight months after an Israel-Hamas ceasefire has more or less held, the 1.5 million Palestinians who live in the occupied Gaza Strip still find themselves subject to a full-scale Israeli blockade, which the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict concluded “inflict[s] collective punishment on the people of the Gaza Strip in violation of international humanitarian law.” How can Palestinians be expected to negotiate peace with Israel while Israel continues to deny the basic necessities of life to Palestinians in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention?

Even though Israel’s illegal blockade of the occupied Gaza Strip is being ignored by the Obama Administration, we’re not forgetting about it. The US Campaign has endorsed the Gaza Freedom March, scheduled for December, and urges all of its supporters to get involved.


To its credit, the Obama Administration seems to shun the idea of photo-op negotiations. As Mitchell phrased it on Tuesday, "We do not favor more negotiations for the sake of negotiations. We do not believe in an endless, unlimited, unfocused process. We believe that the purpose of negotiations is to get a result, a positive result. We want more peace and less process. And so we are trying to launch – re-launch negotiations at the earliest possible time, but under circumstances in which there is a reasonable basis to believe that they can be successful."

Of course, successful negotiations are the outcome that everyone should hope for. However, without an Israeli settlement freeze, an end to the illegal blockade of the occupied Gaza Strip, and more fundamentally a commitment to negotiate within the framework of UN resolutions, human rights, and international law, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Obama Administration is setting itself up for failure.

The question remains: Why is the Obama Administration now pushing hard for resumed negotiations prior to setting the "favorable context" it defined as necessary for their success? It's hard to say for certain since the State Department is insisting that there has been no actual change in policy. However, looking at the broader international context of Israel's growing isolation and increasing demands for accountability for its actions might provide a clue. Recent large-scale successes in the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, in addition to the recommendations of the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (the "Goldstone Report"), reveal an international community increasingly frustrated with ongoing Israeli occupation and apartheid.

Heading off this movement for accountability now appears to be the top U.S. policy goal. Ambassador Susan Rice, Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations, is attempting to bury the Goldstone Report and its recommendations at the level of the UN Human Rights Council to prevent international bodies such as the Security Council, General Assembly, and International Criminal Court from having the opportunity to hold Israel accountable for what the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict termed “violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and possible war crimes and crimes against humanity" committed by Israel before, during, and after its assault on the occupied Gaza Strip between December 2008-January 2009.

And the State Department views negotiations as a replacement for, not a complement to, accountability efforts. Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Crowley urged that the “[Goldstone] report should not be used as a mechanism to add impediments to getting back to the peace process,” as if holding human rights abusers accountable and establishing peace are mutually exclusive affairs.


This is where we come in. It's our job to tell the Obama Administration that its push for renewed Israeli-Palestinian negotiations cannot come at the expense of fundamental human rights, respect for international law, and accountability for war crimes. Next Tuesday, the United States will vote in the UN Human Rights Council to accept or reject the Goldstone Report's recommendations for accountability for human rights violations committed by all parties to the Gaza conflict.


Both individuals and organizations can take action by sending a message to support the recommendations of the Goldstone Report to Ambassador Susan Rice, Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations, by clicking here. Note: We will be delivering our open letter to Ambassador Rice tomorrow. If your organization would like to endorse it, then please do so by COB today by clicking here.