Locals React to U.S. Abstention at UN Vote

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The Security Council votes on a resolution reiterating its demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in land it says should be part of a future Palestinian state, including East Jerusalem. The vote was 14 in favor, with one abstention from the United States. Manuel Elias/UN Photo
The Security Council votes on a resolution reiterating its demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in land it says should be part of a future Palestinian state, including East Jerusalem. The vote was 14 in favor, with one abstention from the United States. Manuel Elias/UN Photo

The United States has faced a lot of backlash since the Obama administration abstained on the U.N. Security Council resolution on Dec. 23 declaring Israeli neighborhoods in the so-called West Bank illegal.

Those outraged blamed President Obama for abandoning its closest Middle East ally and decreasing the chances of successful peace talks with the Palestinians.

The abstention, rather than a veto, allowed the resolution, which called on Israel cease settlement activities on the other side of the pre-Six Day War border, an area that includes Jerusalem’s Old City, to pass in a 14-0 vote.

With just a few weeks left in office, Secretary of State John Kerry defended the abstention as a means to preserve a two-state solution.

“Despite our best efforts over the years, the two-state solution is now in serious jeopardy,” he said on Dec. 28. “The truth is that trends on the ground — violence, terrorism, incitement, settlement expansion and the seemingly endless occupation — they are combining to destroy hopes for peace on both sides and increasingly cementing an irreversible one-state reality that most people do not actually want.”

Kerry noted that the Israeli population in the so-called West Bank has grown by 270,000 since the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Kerry’s speech as “skewed against Israel.”

“How can you make peace with someone who rejects your very existence?” Netanyahu said in a press conference. “This conflict has always been about Israel’s very right to exist.”

President-elect Donald Trump tweeted in response to Kerry’s speech as well: “We cannot continue to let Israel be treated with such total disdain and disrespect. They used to have a great friend in the U.S., but not anymore. The beginning of the end was the horrible Iran deal, and now this (U.N.)! Stay strong Israel, January 20th is fast approaching!”

But not all are against the U.S. abstention, including some local leaders.

Rabbi Julie Greenberg from the Reconstructionist Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City is in favor of a solution that works for both the Jewish and Palestinian people.

“As a rabbi and as an American citizen, I was proud of President Obama for making a statement in support of peace and justice in the Middle East,” she said. “The expansion of settlements creates a direct denial of peace possibilities. So it’s so important for the world to stand up for limiting those settlements.”

Additionally, she said that as a Jewish-American, her tax dollars should not be used to support Israel’s presence on land slated to be incorporated in a future Palestinian state; she said if they were, it goes against her own Jewish values.

“As a taxpayer in this country, I’m telling my government that what I would like my government to do is to stand up for the possibility of peace and justice in that region by stopping or limiting the settlements,” she said.

Phyllis Snyder, a national board member of J Street and chair of its Philadelphia chapter, said the abstention reflects how the majority of American Jews feel about the settlements.

“It’s important for Israel to stop and to consider the continuing expansion and support of the settlements and what is the impact of that on its own future,” she said. “The demographics of Israel’s society are changing, and there needs to be a recognition of the steps that have to be taken here.”

Snyder added that the abstention was consistent with U.S. policy, that “Israel going beyond the Green Line threatens the prospects of ensuring a democratic Jewish state.”

She said past U.S. presidents have also abstained on resolutions perceived as anti-Israel.

“This is the first time that Obama has revoked a veto whereas prior presidents have done it many times over the course of their tenure,” she said. “So in that way there’s consistency, and this government, Obama and Kerry, have worked very, very hard to support Israel becoming a democratic Jewish state.”

She acknowledged “incitement by Palestinians” but “Israel has a responsibility to abide by international law, and these settlements are not legal.”

Much of the reaction from the Jewish community, however, took issue with the abstention and accused Kerry and Obama of abandoning Israel. Many argued that whatever the intention, the U.N. resolution empowers Palestinians to stand their ground and refuse to negotiate. It also opens up the possibility of legal action against the Jewish state in the International Criminal Court, they said.

Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch from the Orthodox Center City synagogue Mekor Habracha found the vote very frustrating.

“It was kind of like the United States felt like they had to make a statement as such before the [Obama] administration left,” he said. “The support of Israel from the United States is very important to Israel and to the Jewish population in America, so it was disappointing that such a move was made.”

Hirsch believes that support of Israel should not be a political issue.

“Basic support of Israel should be something that we all have, regardless of our political position,” he said. “Regardless what a person’s view is on settlements or the expansion of settlement activity, whatever it might be, I think it’s really something that extends beyond that basic support of Israel.”

In light of the terror occurring in Syria, Hirsch added that he was disheartened that the U.N. focused on Israel and these type of issues when there are larger tragedies going on in the world.

He touched on this heated issue in his sermon last Shabbat, which he usually avoids doing.

“I don’t think it’s a partisan issue,” he added. “I try to avoid speaking about politics in shul but when it comes to Israel, we all have to look at these incidents and just double down on our support of Israel.”

Lee Bender, co-president of the ZOA-Greater Philadelphia District, called the vote “a betrayal of the worst kind.”

“To intentionally not veto a resolution which calls for Jewish homes on the cradle of our ancient Jewish civilizations and the Temple Mount, the Jewish Quarter, the Mount of Olives, where Jews have been buried for over 3,000 years — to say that’s occupied territory is an outrage,” he said.

He described the abstention as an intentional insult from the outgoing Obama administration that completely “warps” the idea of peace.

“The only thing that Israel has to negotiate — if you’re talking about land for peace — is land. And now the U.N. says this is not Israel’s land to begin with,” he said.

The resolution is in violation of Security Council Resolution 242, said Bender, which provided that “after the Six-Day War, Israel did not have to give back all territories.” It also violates the Oslo Accords, which said that “both sides have to engage in negotiations,” Bender added.

In contrast to Obama and the U.N., Bender praised Netanyahu as a “real leader” for taking diplomatic action against some of the countries that promoted the resolution.

“ZOA has, for years, foreseen this potential outcome with the Obama administration,” he added. “What is really upsetting as an American — not just as a Jew — is to see an administration that’s completely unaccountable.

“[This resolution] can’t be undone so easily.”
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