What is the real obstacle to a two-state solution?

Parts of the Israeli security wall near Beit Jala, outside Jerusalem (Photo: Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

On Dec. 23, Samantha Power, the erstwhile United State ambassador to the United Nations, abstained from voting on Security Council Resolution 2334. That single abstention allowed the resolution to pass 14-0 and marked a shocking and unprecedented departure from longstanding United States policy toward Israel.

Resolution 2334 condemned Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, calling them a “flagrant violation under international law,” asserted that the settlements have no “legal validity,” and labeled them “a major obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution.” The resolution also called on Israel to cease all settlement activity.

The United States has a long history of vetoing any U.N. Security Council resolutions against Israel that attempt to impose a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or that jeopardize Israeli security. The U.S. has consistently maintained that a successful two-state solution must be negotiated directly between Israel and a future Palestinian state. That is why the decision to abstain from voting on Resolution 2334 – rather than blocking it with a veto – came as a devastating blow to Israel and is widely viewed as a punitive parting shot by President Barack Obama against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In her remarks to the United Nations following the vote, Power explained that the Obama Administration’s decision to allow Resolution 2334 to pass was directly related to Netanyahu’s commitment to Israel’s settlements. She also indicated that the decision to abstain from blocking the resolution stemmed from Obama’s disapproval of controversial settlement legislation currently being considered by Israel’s parliament.

The Knesset – Israel’s parliament – gave preliminary approval on the controversial Regulation Bill that would retroactively legalize 2,000 – 3,000 unauthorized settlements built on private Palestinian land. This legislation includes an offer of monetary compensation or alternative land parcels to Palestinian landowners, and stipulates that the settlements must have been built unknowingly on private land.

The bill – which has so far passed every preliminary reading in the Knesset – faces heavy opposition both within and outside Israel. Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned that the legislation will almost certainly be challenged in Israeli Supreme Court if it is ratified, and called it a breach of Israeli and international law. Other critics have argued that it would amount to a formal annexation of the West Bank, eliminating any possible two-state solution with Palestinians and leaving the creation of a bi-national state (Jewish and Palestinian) the only option.

The United States, the European Union and the United Nations have all strongly criticized the bill since its introduction, and the possibility of an International Criminal Court investigation of war crimes now looms as perhaps the greatest threat to Israeli lawmakers if they pass it. Netanyahu and other politicians worry that passage of the Regulation Bill will provoke the ICC, causing it to pursue the prosecution of Israeli officials. What’s more, the U.S. decision to allow Resolution 2334 to pass implies a new, harsher U.S. stance against Israel and may give momentum to the push for an ICC investigation.

Early in December, Netanyahu asked legislators to postpone a final vote on the Regulation until later this month. His concern seemed to stem primarily from a desire to see a transition of United States presidents before his government makes controversial policy changes, rather than from disapproval of legalizing additional settlements.

This is prudent, as President-Elect Donald Trump’s upcoming administration is expected to repair and strengthen U.S.-Israeli relations that have weakened considerably under Obama. Trump had attempted to prevent the U.N. Security Council from voting on Resolution 2334, successfully convincing Egypt to postpone the initial vote. Nonetheless, four other countries serving as temporary members of the Security Council were able to bring the resolution to a vote.

Trump appears set to not only strengthen the U.S. alliance with Israel, but to soften the United States’ stance against Israel’s settlement policy. Historically, all administrations since President Reagan’s have labeled the Israeli settlements a “major obstacle to peace,” but have stopped short of joining other leading members of the international community in deeming them illegal. However, one of Trump’s advisors recently indicated that the president-elect does not agree with the assessment that Israeli settlements impede the peace process.

Trump’s reasoning is not completely implausible. Long before Israeli settlements were established in the West Bank – indeed, before there was a State of Israel – Palestinian and other Arab leaders refused a 1937 British partition plan that would have created a large Arab state and a very small – likely indefensible – Jewish one. Although it was not to their advantage, the Jews accepted the deal. Ten years later, they also accepted the United Nation’s partition plan for the creation of two states; however, the Palestinians rejected that plan, as well. Thus, many have argued that a two-state solution proved unattainable before any settlements were established, and that the only real obstacle to peace has been – and remains – Palestinian unwillingness to recognize and accept a Jewish State.

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, January 17, 2017, and reposted with permission.