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Why didn’t the U.S. veto the UN’s rebuke of Israel?

December 23, 2016 at 6:40 PM EST
The United States has broken with decades of diplomacy by abstaining on a U.N. rebuke of Israel, rather than vetoing it in support of its longtime ally. The Security Council voted 14 to 0 that Israel is committing a “flagrant violation” of international law by building settlements on land Palestinians want. Judy Woodruff speaks with Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, about the decision.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: So, why did the Obama administration today abstain from voting on the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem?

We ask Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications to the president.

Ben Rhodes, welcome.

It is the case that the U.S. has long opposed these Israeli settlements but, at the same time, it has protected Israel in the U.N. against these condemning resolutions. Why the shift?

BEN RHODES, Deputy National Security Adviser: Well, look, first of all, it’s bipartisan tradition to opposed settlements, as you mentioned. There have been many resolutions in the past under bipartisan administrations that address the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact of the matter is, we vetoed a resolution that addressed settlements in 2011, and look what’s happened since. We’ve had failed peace processes after failed peace process, and the pace of settlement construction has accelerated significantly. And just recently, you had the Israeli prime minister saying that this is the most pro-settlement in administration in Israeli history, the Israeli government that is currently in place.

We believe that at this pace, a two-state solution could be put at risk. We believe that would be profoundly bad for Israel and its security. And so, that’s why the president took the position that he did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It comes across, though, Ben Rhodes, though, as a parting shot at Israel on the part of President Obama.

BEN RHODES: Well, look, we have a record that we’ll put up next to anybody in terms of support for Israel. In fact, we just concluded a $38 billion ten year MOU with respect to their security assistance from the United States.

The fact of the matter is, though, I think if you look at the map of the West Bank, if you look at the future of the two-state solution, these settlements are encroaching further and further beyond the separation barrier that the Israelis themselves built, thousands of new settlements are being constructed and, frankly, if these trends continue, it will be impossible to realize a two-state solution.

And the fact of the matter is, we can’t just have a peace process or a two-state solution as an empty talking point. If we really want to be able to have a prospect for peace, we have to be clear about what we’re against and that includes the type of settlements and I’d say as the resolution points out, the type of incitement to violence on the Palestinian side that have been obstacles to peace.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just read you what — among other things the comments from Prime Minister Netanyahu after this happened. He said, “The National Security Council has disgracefully ganged up on the one democracy in the Middle East.” The Israeli government is saying this was a shameful resolution, they’re not going to abide by it.

I mean, is the president — are you comfortable with what is now a really raw opening, a sore spot in the relationship with Israel as this president leaves office?

BEN RHODES: Look, we’ve taken a lot of criticism from the Israeli government over the years. If you look at our record, unprecedented military intelligence cooperation, a significant security assistance upgrades.

But again, let’s talk about what the resolution addressed — the settlement construction. That’s the conversation that the Israeli government is not having. And, in fact, you had this prime minister say this is the most pro-settlement Israeli government in history. Frankly, that statement is entirely inconsistent with the two-state solution that the Israeli government in the past has said they supported, that many members of Congress support.

At a certain point, we all just have to stop and look at the map and look at the facts and say, if these settlements continue, is the two-state solution impossible? And that clearly is the trend line. It’s evident for everybody to see, and that’s what we should be talking about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President-elect Trump, as you know, had urged the White House to veto this resolution condemning Israel. We know that he was in touch with the president of Egypt to try to intervene. Was this appropriate on his part?

BEN RHODES: Well, look, we believe that there is one president at a time. Frankly, after January 20, the president-elect will get to pursue this approach and whatever other one he wants on these issues.

Again, I would say, it’s very important, this is bipartisan position to oppose continued settlements and it’s a bipartisan history that there’d been resolutions at the U.N. I keep hearing this is unprecedented. There were six resolutions under George W. Bush addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including one that embraced the road map the Bush administration put forward for a Palestinian state by 2005. That was over a decade ago.

So, the question is, if we are against the continued settlement activity and for a two-state solution, why are we going to continue with the status quo, on which we see trends on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian trends, that are putting peace farther and farther away?

JUDY WOODRUFF: You say it’s bipartisan, but as you very well know, the leadership — Republican leadership in the Congress is raining down now with criticism, the incoming Democratic leader in the Senate, Senator Schumer from New York, is criticizing this decision. It sounds like the administration is, if not alone, certainly is in the minority on this position today.

BEN RHODES: Well, look, we respect, of course, friends on both sides of the aisle who have expressed different views on this. Again, I think the question is going to be when history looks at these types of decisions, when people look back and they say, you saw tens of thousands of settlements being constructed, you saw as was addressed in the resolution, incitement to violence on the Palestinian side.

The question is, do we not have responsibility to lay down a marker here about what we think is actual U.S. policy? You have a resolution like this that is entirely consistent with the policy, how can we continue to veto that over and over again?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, are you comfortable — is the president comfortable with this knowing that President-elect Trump is saying he’s going to undo this as soon as he takes office in a few weeks? Is it worth it?

BEN RHODES: We believe it’s worth it. We believe it’s worth saying this is where we stand and it’s entirely consistent again with our policy for decades. Samantha Power in her explanation of the vote at the U.N. quoted Ronald Reagan in 1982 expressing opposition to settlements. This is not a new U.S. position. And the fact of the matter is, if we’re serious about achieving peace, we need to stand behind the things we believe?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to the president — thank you very much.

BEN RHODES: Thank you.

After this broadcast aired, the group CAMERA asked about one of Ben Rhodes’ answers regarding the number of Israeli settlements.  The PBS Ombudsman spoke to Rhodes, who offered a clarification. You can read more in the Ombudsman column here.

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