A Tough Day For American Diplomacy in the Middle East

UPDATE: Explanation of US Veto of Israel resolution at the Security Council.

In Bahrain today, the security forces of a geo-strategic ally of the United States opened fire on its own people.  There are several dead and scores injured.

It is not enough to simply condemn the violence, as President Obama will surely do. Rather, the Bahrani government needs to know that it cannot massacre its own people and also expect the continued backing of the United States. Unless the Obama administration comes out hard–now–it would not be unreasonable to expect that Bahrain’s middle class and well educated population would mistrust the United States for a long time.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world, the Obama administration cast its first ever veto at the Security Council, even though the resolution in question reflects the administration’s own stated position on the undesirability of new Israeli settlements in the West Bank.   As a refresher, here is what the Secretary of State said about the new settlement construction just last month:

We are very concerned about the initiation of demolition of the Shepherd’s Hotel in East Jerusalem.  This disturbing development undermines peace efforts to achieve the two state-solution. In particular, this move contradicts the logic of a reasonable and necessary agreement between the parties on the status of Jerusalem. We believe that through good faith negotiations, the parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem, and safeguards its status for people around the world.  Ultimately, the lack of a resolution to this conflict harms Israel, harms the Palestinians, and harms the U.S. and the international community. We will continue to press ahead with the parties to resolve the core issues, including Jerusalem, in the context of a peace agreement.

There are probably decent political and diplomatic explanations for why the United States would cast its veto for Israel and not swiftly and publicly excoriate the Bahraini government. But I cannot imagine that America’s stock is on the rise in the Arab world today.

UPDATE: Here is the “explanation of vote” by US Ambassador Susan Rice:

Explanation of Vote by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on a Resolution on the Situation in the Middle East, including the Question of Palestine, in the Security Council Chamber, February 18, 2011

Thank you, Madame President.

The United States has been deeply committed to pursuing a comprehensive and lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In that context, we have been focused on taking steps that advance the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security, rather than complicating it. That includes a commitment to work in good faith with all parties to underscore our opposition to continued settlements.

Our opposition to the resolution before this Council today should therefore not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity.  On the contrary, we reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.  For more than four decades, Israeli settlement activity in territories occupied in 1967 has undermined Israel’s security and corroded hopes for peace and stability in the region. Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.

The United States and our fellow Council members are also in full agreement about the urgent need to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, based on the two-state solution and an agreement that establishes a viable, independent, and contiguous state of Palestine, once and for all. We have invested a tremendous amount of effort and resources in pursuit of this shared goal, and we will continue to do so.

But the only way to reach that common goal is through direct negotiations between the parties, with the active and sustained support of the United States and the international community.

It is the Israelis’ and Palestinians’ conflict, and even the best-intentioned outsiders cannot resolve it for them. Therefore every potential action must be measured against one overriding standard: will it move the parties closer to negotiations and an agreement? Unfortunately, this draft resolution risks hardening the positions of both sides. It could encourage the parties to stay out of negotiations and, if and when they did resume, to return to the Security Council whenever they reach an impasse.

Madame President, in recent years, no outside country has invested more than the United States of America in the effort to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace. In recent days, we offered a constructive alternative course forward that we believe would have allowed the Council to act unanimously to support the pursuit of peace. We regret that this effort was not successful and thus is no longer viable.

The great impetus for democracy and reform in the region makes it even more urgent to settle this bitter and tragic conflict in the context of a region moving toward greater peace and respect for human rights. But there simply are no shortcuts. We hope that those who share our hopes for peace between a secure and sovereign Israel and Palestine will join us in redoubling our common efforts to encourage and support the resumption of direct negotiations.

While we agree with our fellow Council members—and indeed, with the wider world—about the folly and illegitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity, we think it unwise for this Council to attempt to resolve the core issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians. We therefore regrettably have opposed this draft resolution.

Thank you, Madame President.

UPDATE II Here’s the UK/France and Germany’s joint statement:

The United Kingdom, France and Germany are seriously concerned about the current stalemate in the Middle East Peace Process. We each voted in favour of the draft Security Council Resolution because our views on settlements, including in East Jerusalem, are clear: they are illegal under international law, an obstacle to peace and constitute a threat to a two-state solution. All settlement activity, including in East Jerusalem, should cease immediately.

Our primary goal remains a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We will continue to work actively to turn this ambition into reality: the creation of a sovereign, independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian State living in peace and security side by side with Israel.

Our views are clearly set out in the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions, most recently in December 2009 and 2010. We believe that Israel’s security and the realisation of the Palestinians’ right to statehood are not opposing goals. On the contrary they are intimately intertwined objectives.

We therefore call on both parties to return as soon as possible to direct negotiations towards a two-state solution, on the basis of clear parameters.

For those negotiations to be successful, they will need to achieve:

— An agreement on the borders of the two states, based on June 4 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps as may be agreed between the parties.

— Security arrangements that, for Palestinians, respect their sovereignty and show that the occupation is over; and, for Israelis, protect their security, prevent the resurgence of terrorism and deal effectively with new and emerging threats.

— A just, fair and agreed solution to the refugee question.

— Fulfillment of the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem. A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of both states.

Despite the challenges ahead, the key elements of a solution are well known. Thanks to work commended by the international community as a whole, the Palestinian Authority has developed the capacity to run a democratic and peaceful state, founded on the rule of law and living in peace and security with Israel. Further delay will reduce rather than increase the prospects for a solution.

We therefore look to both parties to return to negotiations as soon as possible on this basis. Our goal remains an agreement on all final status issues and the welcoming of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations by September 2011. We will contribute to achieving this goal in any and every way that we can.