At the United Nations, a lynch mob for Israel is always just a moment away. The Islamic countries are a reliable source of venom, led by the Arab bloc; what we used to call the “non-aligned” are all aligned against Israel and happy to join the fun; and the Europeans can be counted on for hand-wringing rather than staunch resistance. Only the United States, and a few brave allies like Canada and Australia, can be counted upon to oppose diplomatic lynchings year after year; and only the United States can stop them in the Security Council.
In the American government, it is never the State Department bureaucracy that wishes to brave the endless assaults at the UN. Normally the resistance comes not from the various regional bureaus or from the International Organizations bureau, where Israel is so often viewed as a giant pain, but from the White House and sometimes (example: George Shultz) the Secretary of State.
This week the mob formed again, instantly, after the Gaza flotilla disaster, reinforced this time by the leadership of Turkey, whose language at the UN was more vicious than that used by the Arabs. As usual there was really only one question once the mob began to gather. It is the question that arose repeatedly in the Bush years—when the Hamas leaders Sheik Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi were killed by Israel, when Israel acted in Gaza, when Israel put down the intifada in the West Bank, and during the 2006 war in Lebanon and the late 2008 fighting in Gaza: would Israel stand alone, or would the United States stand with her and prevent the lynching? Would the U.S., in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's memorable phrase, "join the jackals?"
This week the Obama administration answered the question: Yes we would, and Israel would stand alone. It is simple to block the kind of attack issued as a “President’s Statement” on behalf of the Council, for such a statement requires unanimity. The United States can just say “No,” and make it clear that orders have come from the White House and will not be changed. Then negotiations begin on a serious statement—or, there can be no statement at all. The killing of dozens of South Korean sailors by North Korea in an action that truly threatens the peace did not evoke the kind of action the Security Council took against Israel, proving that the UN does not always act, or act in the same way, when news flashes hit. Whether Israel is slammed depends on whether the United States is willing to take a stand.
On the Gaza flotilla, the Obama administration waffled and straddled. It agreed to a statement in which the United Nations condemned the “acts” that led to loss of life but did not say “We condemn Israel.” Presumably White House congratulated itself on this elision, but no one is fooled: the world media keep repeating that the Security Council condemned Israel, and in this case it is hard to argue. Yet it would have been simple to stop the mob had the White House wanted to. The facts were not in yet and indeed are still not in. The videos suggest that dozens of people (all Turks, it appears, but that too is not fully clear) on the boats were armed and dangerous. Reports are circulating here that some of those “peace activists” had gas masks and night vision devices, carried no identification papers, wore bullet-proof vests, and carried large amounts of cash. The background, the Hamas coup in Gaza and more than three thousand rockets into Israel from Gaza, is clear. The fact the Egypt has for three years (until the pressure mounted this week) refused to open its border to Gaza is understood at the UN. So the material was at hand to block the lynch mob and say we would accept only a statement that mourned the loss of life. We did not have to accept the word “condemn” or join in the call for another Goldstone Report.
No doubt the administration will claim it avoided a worse result, a Council resolution condemning Israel. To which the answer is, "not good enough." The U.S. has the power to block all anti-Israel moves in the Security Council, not just some of them, and to do so without agreeing to unfair, damaging compromises.
So why did we agree to the presidential statement? The White House did not wish to stand with Israel against this mob because it does not have a policy of solidarity with Israel. Rather, its policy is one of distancing and pressure. This was evident last week at the NPT conference as well, where a final statement that singled out Israel while ignoring Iran—precisely what the Bush administration blocked in 2005—was permitted by the United States. From this perspective, it is just as well that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not make it to Washington this week, where a phony love fest would have pictured him in the Obama embrace. The entire purpose of the invitation was to “change the atmosphere” and reverse the damage done during his last visit, where photos of Netanyahu with Obama were not permitted. There were no doubt many rabbis, Jewish leaders, and Democratic party pols prepared to beam and conclude that all the troubles are behind us.
But the events at the UN this week showed that they are not, because Obama policy has not changed. This reality is sinking in fast in Jerusalem, where the UN is understood as an excellent barometer of the White House—in any administration. Does the White House accept, indeed relish, the need to defend Israel against all comers—Pakistan, Turkey, the Arabs, weak-kneed Euro-dips, UN bureaucrats? Is this understood as a chance to show what America really stands for in the world? Or is Israel seen by the president as a burden, an albatross, a complication in his grand struggle to re-position the United States as a more “progressive” power?
We got the answer, again, this past week, and so did Israelis.
In Israel, the press reporting on the Gaza flotilla is straightforward: there were probably intelligence and operational failures; why did we not know how many armed men there were on board, and come prepared; the Ministry of Defense and the IDF must investigate; but the moral equation is clear. This flotilla was an act of solidarity and support for terrorism, and thirty or forty armed men lay in wait for Israeli commandos. Had the commandos not fired to save themselves, this would have been Israel’s very own “Blackhawk Down” incident.
Israelis see clearly the problems they face when the United States is calling for another international investigation and will not defend Israel. They understand that no one is going to investigate Turkey and its role, nor investigate the pro-terror groups on board those ships—not if the United States fails to insist on it. They realize that, thanks to the Obama policies, it is now open season on Israel in Europe and at the UN. They speak candidly (Israelis of the left, center, and right, not just Likud supporters) in private about all these problems, but they cannot speak openly about them, not when they may have the Obama administration to deal with for six and a half more years. They wonder most about whether their friends see their predicament, and will speak up for them even when they must—to retain a working relationship with the White House—remain silent or speak very carefully. So this crisis is not only a test for Israel, which faces difficult weeks ahead, and for the Obama administration, which in fact has already failed. It is a test for Israel’s supporters, facing the combined onslaught of the news media (from BBC coverage to New York Times editorials), scores of governments, UN bureaucrats, and a White House that views excessive solidarity with Israel as a diplomatic inconvenience. The United States abandoned Israel in the United Nations and in the NPT Conference in the course of one week. Israel’s friends in the United States should say so, say it was shameful, and gear up for a long fight.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.