A Threat To Israel? Palestinians Apply To Human Rights Conventions

In an earlier article I discussed the apoplectic reaction by the United States to the Palestinian decision to send letters of accession to fifteen international conventions and treaties. This was condemned by Samantha Power in congressional testimony as a threat to Israel. Earlier, a White House spokesman had equated this Palestinian move with Israeli settlement expansion and reneging on the agreed release of prisoners by calling both moves “unhelpful, unilateral actions.”

So let’s examine these unilateral steps by the Palestinians and what existential threat they pose to Israel. Here is the list of the fifteen conventions that the Palestinians want to become a party to:

  1. The Four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and the First Additional Protocol
  2. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
  3. The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations
  4. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in armed conflict
  5. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
  6. The Hague Convention (IV) respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its annex: Regulations Concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land
  7. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  8. The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
  9. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
  10. The Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
  11. The United Nations Convention against Corruption
  12. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide
  13. The International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid
  14. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  15. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

As you can see, the Palestinian applications do not affect Israel in any way. In fact, the Palestinians went out of their way to avoid impactful applications, such as to the Rome Statute (which would allow them to bring war crimes charges against Israel to the International Criminal Court) or to any United Nations bodies (which, thanks to Israel’s bought-and-paid-for US Congress would force the United States to suspend funding to any such bodies, as it did in response to UNESCO accepting the Palestinians in 2011).

If we want to really stretch our imaginations, we can come up with two things Israel might be concerned about. One is that by joining these conventions, Palestine looks a little bit more like a state. The second is that if Palestine is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, it helps to undermine Israel’s argument that the Conventions don’t apply to the Occupied Territories because after the 1948 war, they were merely occupied by other countries, rather than being truly part of a neighboring state.

But those imaginative leaps don’t amount to much, because even if they were Israel’s concerns — and they’re not — they’d be very minor. The accession to these conventions would be nothing next to the UN General Assembly’s decision to admit Palestine as a “non-member observer state” in November 2012. And no one who takes international law seriously buys Israeli arguments that the Geneva Conventions don’t apply to the Occupied Territories.

No, Israel’s concerns are that the Palestinians took an action that Israel did not agree to, and that the action they took is a reminder that the Palestinians can, any time they wish to, apply for accession to the Rome Statute, which Israel clearly fears.

There’s a real irony in the Israeli and US reactions. Ethically, and as a way to take some sort of action, the Palestinian decision is beyond reproach. But strategically, the particular conventions they applied to could cause some problems for them. The fact is, the Palestinian Authority (PA), from its inception, has had major problems with human rights. As attorney Darryl Li explains, “Many of the human rights agreements Abbas signed have monitoring mechanisms whereby committees of experts monitor state compliance through periodically holding hearings and issuing reports.” Israel, which has never been concerned about hypocrisy, will no doubt use such reports to attack the PA while condemning the same bodies when they issue reports critical of themselves.

That aside, the real issue here is that the United States is criticizing and threatening the Palestinian Authority for signing conventions committing them to international law, protecting human and civil rights, and agreeing to diplomatic norms. At the same time, Israel reneges on its commitments to the US, expands settlements and threatens to withhold tax monies from the Palestinians that Israel is not legally entitled to control, and the US expresses mild displeasure but threatens absolutely no action in response.

All of us who have followed this conflict for any length of time have likely become jaded by the US double standard. That’s why it’s worthwhile to examine what’s happening when that double standard is this blatant. We need to remember how much of a problem it really is.

Israeli-Palestinian Talks Are Quietly Foundering

This piece was originally published at LobeLog

If John Kerry wants to find a silver lining in the heavy criticism US foreign policy has faced due to the events in both Egypt and Syria, he Israel-Palestine-Kerry-Indyk-620x350might find it in, of all places, the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

The secretary of state embarked on the talks by saying there would be no discussion of them in the media; that any reliable information about them would only come from him; and that he would not talk about them. Given the history of leaks in such talks and the widespread coverage generated by any negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, this seemed like a very ambitious promise. But amid an imminent attack on Syria after the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and the controversial, tacit US support for a coup in Egypt that turned out to be a lot more bloody than Washington probably expected, attention has been completely drawn away from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Continue reading

Syria Spotlights Problematic International Law

Russia is not staying silent as the US appears to be positioning itself for an attack on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Defending its last key ally in the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against intervention. Western nations should avoid repeating “past mistakes,” said Lavrov.

More importantly, Lavrov illustrates just how broken and vaporous the system of “international law” is when it comes to conflict and protecting civilians. “The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is a very grave violation of international law,” he said. And there is no question that he is correct.

An intervention in Syria requires the approval of the Security Council in order to be comply with international law. Such authorizations are, quite naturally, exceedingly rare. Not only does it require a majority vote in the Council, but, more importantly, all five permanent members of the Council (the US, Russia, China, Great Britain and France) must also agree. Any one of those countries can exercise its right to veto any resolution before the Council.

The idea, in 1945, made some sense. In the post-World War II era, there was still some question as to whether the US and USSR would perhaps build on their wartime alliance and find a way to work together, but it seemed unlikely. An incentive to maintain some sense of order in the world by working together on such matters and being able to block one-sided moves might have seemed sensible. It’s even worked out that way from time to time. But for the most part, it’s been a recipe for paralysis and a means to prevent action on matters of global concern, rather than to promote it.

The most obvious example of this is the matter on which there has been, by far, more Security Council vetoes than any other: Israel’s occupation of territories captured in the 1967 war. From 1946-1971, the USSR was the overwhelming leader in Security Council vetoes; no other country was even close. These were, of course, mostly Cold War-related resolutions that directly or indirectly took aim at Soviet actions and policies in various parts of the world. Since then, the overwhelming leader has been the United States, with the clear majority of those vetoes being made on behalf of Israel, protecting its occupation and concomitant violence and settlement expansion.

Indeed, in recent years, the problem has gotten so bad that most resolutions regarding Israel-Palestine have been withdrawn in advance, knowing the US will veto as a matter of course. The matter reached its ultimate absurdity in 2011, when the Obama administration vetoed a UNSC resolution that stated nothing at all that was not already official US policy. But the veto was expected and required. The fact that it was such a moderate resolution raised fears among AIPAC and its various fellow travellers in the Israel lobby, and there was a lot of public pressure on Obama to veto. But there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t have done so anyway.

Politics and power, not international law, govern international matters. The fact is that legality will have no bearing on the US decision to attack Syria or refrain from taking action. The decision will be based on strategy and politics.

The system of international law is irreparably broken. Ultimately, any system of law depends entirely on the ability of the judicial body to enact penalties and sanctions on lawbreakers. Such penalties don’t exist for the United States, nor for Russia or China or the other members of the Security Council. Britain and France are more compliant with international law than the others, but this is due not to fear of censure but because their own situations (including widespread European support for abiding by international law, as well as the experience of the two World Wars and the end of colonialism, the latter having removed a lot of European disincentives toward international law) push them in that direction.

Indeed, it is worth asking this question: if one believes that intervention in Syria is needed to stop what is already a humanitarian disaster from getting much worse, should international law be ignored in doing so? It seems inescapable that the answer to that question is yes, and one is then left with only the question of whether military intervention will help or hurt the millions of Syrians in the crossfire.

But at what point can we claim with reasonable certainty that the moral imperative trumps the law? Particularly in a hypothetical world where the law actually matters, where should that line be drawn? In point of fact, few people are so naïve as to believe that military intervention ever occurs for purely humanitarian reasons. It is generally done in order to pursue the invading country’s interests, and if some humanitarian good is done on the way, well that is just fine. And most of the time, the humanitarian interests are only a cover for other goals; the situation is often oversimplified so the public will support the intervention, which is sometimes vastly distorted.

In this instance, it is Russia warning the United States against violating international law, but the US has played the same game on many occasions — the 2003 push for a UN imprimatur for the invasion of Iraq being perhaps the most prominent and revolting instance.

The alternative to a world governed by international law is a world where might makes right. That is, indeed, the world in which we live. The point here is not that international law should be done away with. On the contrary, it must be strengthened exponentially. A legal system that can enjoy at least some insulation from the whims of politics, both domestic and international, is crucial, and the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice have at least some of that. But more importantly, there must be a mechanism where even the most powerful country can be held accountable for violating the law.

Such a system will never be perfect, of course. Even in the realm of domestic law, we regularly see differences in how it is applied and defied by the rich and the poor. But even the wealthiest individuals have to at least consider their actions when breaking the law. Some system where powerful actors are treated the same as everyone else must be put into place. The answer to how that can be achieved is for better minds than mine, but asking the question is the first step.

Other aspects need revision or at least revisiting as well. Sovereignty is a crucial principle, without a doubt, but it is also used by tyrants to shield themselves from, for example, reprisals under international human rights law. The debate over intervening in Syria following alleged chemical weapons use by the Syrian government is inherently related to the current system of international law, which is broken far beyond the point of having any effectiveness. In many ways, it is an obstacle. It needs to be rebuilt, before more Syrias confront us.

Obama’s Subtle Message To Israel: You’re Not My Top Priority

All was not as it seemed during President Barack Obama’s appearances in Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he addressed audiences of Israelis and Palestinians. On the surface, it looked like Obama was swearing fealty to Israel, and pledging unconditional US support for any and all Israeli actions. But a closer look at what was and was not said, as well as some of the surrounding circumstances, suggests that what Obama was really doing was paving a road toward a reduced US role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The contradictions in evidence abound, and could be seen from the very beginning. Obama kept calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname, Bibi, at their joint press conference. “Oh, yes, we’re just the best of friends. Don’t worry, AIPAC,” Obama seemed to be saying. “Any friction between us is a thing of the past.” Yet, Obama had made a pointed decision to deliver the keynote speech of his trip not at the Knesset, but to an audience from Israel’s major universities. The many students invited excluded only those from Ariel University, the lone Israeli university located in the West Bank settlements.

The ham-handed excuse offered by the US embassy, that they only invited those universities with whom they partnered, was a convenient one. They don’t work with that university because of the political ramifications, and the exclusion here was for the same reason. And that sent a message to Obama’s “good friend,” Bibi.

Not speaking to the Knesset sent a message as well, and it was reflected in Obama’s speech. There is no reason for Obama to speak in a chamber where there is so much hostility toward him. Instead, he told his young Jerusalem audience: “let me say this as a politician — I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.” Translation: “I can’t work on peace with your current government. You need to drive the change and open the door.” That, too, was a message to Bibi.

But more important than what was said was what was not said. For all the fawning that Obama did, he offered nothing new or of substance — not the slightest deviation from his well-established policies. There’s no new version of Dennis Ross, Anthony Zinni or George Mitchell being sent to the Middle East. There are no new incentives or confidence-building plans, however pointless. There was just a whole bunch of pronouncements about the unshakeable bond between the US and Israel.

Does that sound like a president who intends to maintain the US’ current level of involvement? It seems more like a President who is telling Israelis exactly what AIPAC is buying. The annual military aid will continue, as will money for Iron Dome, and never mind the many federal employees who were just sequestered out of a job or furloughed. The security and intelligence cooperation is likely to continue as well. Israel will, as Obama put it, remain “…the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world.”

While the US president sent a clear signal that he holds little hope that the current Israeli government is able or willing to pursue peace in any substantive way, he also cautioned Israelis about their growing peril. “Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation,” Obama said. “And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war. Because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm.”

Note that it’s Israel that needs to reverse this trend, and there’s no mention of any kind of US charm offensive or even advocacy on Israel’s behalf to assist the effort. The implication is clear: Israel’s policies and actions are to blame for its troubles and the US can’t change that, and, because of the political problems it would cause, this administration will not try. Could that also result in a somewhat diminished defense at the United Nations and other international arenas, on the part of the US? Time will tell.

Obama also let the Palestinian Authority know they should look elsewhere. By choosing to condemn Hamas for the rockets that hit Sderot earlier that day during his Ramallah speech rather than in Israel, he surely alienated many in the crowd he was addressing. By refusing to use even moderately stern language on settlements or promise even the mildest pressure on Israel, he seriously undermined Mahmoud Abbas, the man he was purportedly coming to support. Throughout his speech, despite his expressions of sympathy for the daily struggles of Palestinians, Obama never mentioned Israel’s responsibility to end the occupation, let alone to respect human rights or abide by international law.

That sent a very clear message: don’t look to the United States to deliver the goods. If Abbas was listening at all, he must know that internationalizing his cause, as he did last year at the UN, is the only option Obama has left for him. It was so clear, it had to be a deliberate message.

This might all be considered fanciful until one considers the changing position of Israel in the US view. As Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz points out, the entire Middle East region is of considerably less importance in the broader geo-political strategic view of the United States. “U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday his visit to Israel was meant to be a reassuring one,” Benn writes. “He is here to make it clear to Israelis that America stands behind them and will ensure their security, even though the neighborhood has become tougher… The visit comes at a time when the United States is withdrawing from its deep involvement in the Middle East, amid the growing fear of Israel and other regional allies that America will abandon them to radical Islamic forces.”

Benn’s alarmist language aside, he’s right. A big part of this is the oft-discussed “pivot to Asia,” that is the cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy. Asia’s importance is growing as the Middle East’s is shrinking. The Middle East, particularly the Arabian Peninsula, was once called the “greatest material prize in history” by the US State Department because of its wealth of oil resources. But the US and Europe both see themselves on the road to “energy independence.” This sounds a little more grandiose than it really is. Local oil resources and increased reliance on alternative energy sources will significantly diminish the role of Middle Eastern oil both in terms of serving energy needs and in terms of its role in the global economy, but it won’t eliminate it. OPEC will still be a major force in determining the price and supply of oil, but it won’t have the near-monopoly it does today.

But that’s not the only factor. The so-called “Arab Spring” is not the simple romantic vision of emerging democracy that so many in the West thought it was, while they watched Egyptians oust Hosni Mubarak. It’s also not just the massive violence of Libya and Syria. Even in Tunisia and Egypt, transitions have been bumpy and marked with dissatisfaction and political jockeying as well as some very fundamental debates about the role of women, the military, religion and other key groups and institutions in their respective societies. Moves toward true independence and self-determination in these countries will be a long and unpredictable road. And no matter who ends up controlling the oil, they will have less leverage over the West than their predecessors with even more of a need to sell their oil there. So the strategic situation will be less favorable for the Arab governments that arise from this situation.

Not to mention the situation on the ground. Israel has elected a new government that has no interest in peace with the Palestinians. Settlement expansion continues while the Israeli bunker mentality is fortified. For their part, the Palestinians remain trapped between a Palestinian Authority which has lost virtually all legitimacy in the eyes of its people but is the only acceptable “partner” for the US and Israel, and a Hamas government that no one will talk to. Both sides of that divide seem as uninterested in reunification as Netanyahu is in a viable Palestinian state.

Then there’s the big mitigating factor, the US Israel Lobby. Obama has a lot of work to do in the next four years, and he needs Congress to do it. Much of that work focuses on domestic economic issues, but there are foreign policy questions as well. He simply cannot afford to spend the political capital of his second term fighting with AIPAC all the time. Nor do his colleagues in the Democratic Party wish to see him jeopardize their chances of making gains in the midterm elections by picking a fight with Israel.

But that domestic pressure is really all that is holding the US to Israel at this point. Powerful as AIPAC is, the President can still set broader policy priorities, as he seems to be. Asia will have its own difficulties, but the interests there are growing, while the US stake in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, and yes, even Israel and Palestine, are diminishing. To be sure, there is still a significant US stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And AIPAC will make sure we pay attention to it, as will the fact that Israel is a long-standing ally and while AIPAC may represent a small minority of US citizens, most do not want to see Israel as vulnerable to attack.

Ultimately though, Obama knows that the US has spent inordinate time and energy on this issue. He also knows that it’s becoming less and less vital for US concerns that really matter to him as time goes on. So, he goes to Israel, warms some hearts and minds and gives AIPAC the platitudes and assurances it wants. As Benn wrote, “With every passing day, Israel becomes less capable of taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities by itself, while its dependence on the United States for military superiority just keeps growing.” The US will continue to lead on Iran, which is something Obama wants.

As for the peace process? Obama would like to see Israel make peace possible, but absent that, he’s sent them a message: we’ll help if you want, but until you show some interest in changing the status quo, we have bigger fish to fry.

All Eyes on Iran for AIPAC 2013 Conference

This piece was initially published at LobeLog. Please check it out, as it’s an indispensable source for foreign policy news and analysis. You won’t regret it! 

The annual Israel-Congress orgy dubbed as the AIPAC Policy Conference kicked off today. It might just as well be called the War on Iran conference — that’s sure to be the

President Obama speaking at a previous AIPAC conference, He won't be there this year.

President Obama speaking at a previous AIPAC conference, He won’t be there this year.

issue that dominates the proceedings. The US-Israel relationship is taking the second spot. And the Palestinians? More than ever before, they will be invisible.

There are a few sessions at the conference that deal with Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in very general terms. But Iran will be the focus, as evidenced by related bills which AIPAC had some of its most loyal members of Congress introduce in advance of their lobbying day. Those bills work to give Israel a green light to attack Iran if it feels the need to and puts the “special relationship” between the US and Israel on paper.

Last week a Senate resolution was introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). The two senators are widely known as AIPAC favorites and have led bipartisan actions like this in the past, working with AIPAC quite closely to develop legislation favorable to the lobbying organization. The resolution states that if Israel decides to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, this would be considered an act of self-defense and that “…the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel…”

The bill is a “sense of Congress” resolution, so it is not binding; hence the word “should” rather than “will” is used. Still, it is a very clear expression that the Senate expects and desires that President Obama provide a full range of support to Israel in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran. It certainly sends a signal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will have Congress behind him if Obama tries to restrain Israel from taking such a step. While the bill’s wording clarifies that it should not be understood as a declaration of war in the event of an Israeli attack, a commitment to military support of Israel in the event of a purely Israeli decision to attack Iran could well amount to the same thing. Continue reading