The recent spate of Biden administration assertions about Israel – that incoming government plans to curtail the power of the courts over the government, that the Knesset compromises the country’s reputation as a democracy, and that the proposal to expand the settlements undercut the prospects for peace with the Palestinians – raised concerns the President was turning on a longtime U.S. ally. These concerns were heightened when Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom joined the United States in issuing a statement against Israeli settlement activity.
As such, there was a sense of great foreboding as we awaited Monday’s UN Security Council vote on a Palestinian Authority (PA) resolution condemning Israel. Senior American officials were informing Israeli officials that the U.S. would have great difficulty exercising its veto power at the UN under the degree of pressure it was facing from its allies. Would President Joe Biden order a veto, as he had done on a previous similar occasion, or would he now take a leaf from his former boss President Barack Obama? In December 2016, Obama reversed decades-long precedent when he instructed then-UN Ambassador Samantha Rice to abstain from voting and allow language condemnatory of Israel and its settlement policy to be officially adopted.
But then came the reports that, even as it disapproved of Israeli unilateral settlement activity, the U.S. disapproved of the PA’s practice of unilaterally taking its grievances with Israel to the United Nations. From the Biden administration’s perspective, both activities were deemed to be at odds with the notion of a resolving of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute through direct negotiations.
On the eve of the UN vote, as part of a deal engineered by the U.S., the PA withdrew its resolution. While a formal vote is no longer a threat (for now), there is still talk about an informal statement from the presidents of UN Security Council member states.
There were many moving parts to this episode, and the dust hasn’t cleared sufficiently to enable us to know exactly how the deal came about and how each side came out. One thing that seems certain is that it wouldn’t make sense for the Palestinians to withdraw their resolution if they thought there was a reasonable chance of passage. As Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzahi Hanegbi told the Jerusalem Post: “I think the Palestinians understood from the discussion with the [Biden] administration that they are not going to gain anything from this effort because it will be vetoed.”
The important message to the PA is that Biden is still in full-tilt support of Israel and will not go along with efforts to run or end direct negotiations at Israel’s expense. The fine print may put a different gloss on the deal, but for now Biden seems to have done the right thing.