By Ian Williams
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 21/01/2011
Washington's line is to ignore UN decisions and international law and say that it is up to the parties to negotiate such "permanent-status issues". The state department itself is clearer on the issues. After years of congressional votes, it still balks at moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (which hosts not a single foreign embassy) because, regardless of eventual negotiations, Israel does not have internationally recognised title to the city.
It is as if you have caught someone stealing your car and the police decide to overlook technical issues like the law and ownership and instead tell you to negotiate with the thief to get occasional access to the back seat.
However, she added: "Permanent-status issues can be resolved only through negotiations between the parties – and not by recourse to the security council. We therefore consistently oppose attempts to take these issues to this council and will continue to do so."
The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, is usually tactfully absent during such debates, keeping her credibility by allowing deputies to intone the weaselly formulas that disguise the stark truth. Annexation and settlement building are illegal.
Of course, Obama has other problems, such as the economy and healthcare, and on the Middle East must face not only a rabidly pro-Israeli Republican party but also a majority of his own party that would sign up to a resolution declaring the moon to be made of blue cheese if the Israeli lobby demanded it.
Nonetheless, his credibility as president is at stake here. The Republicans do control the House of Representatives, and indeed the chair of the foreign affairs committee is now Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who outflanks the Israeli government on the right. (She has been trying to de-fund UNRWA, the UN's agency that provides basic services in the occupied territories, even though the Israeli government, which would have to pay if the UN didn't, opposes her.) But Congress cannot control the US delegation to the UN.
The public exasperation implied by support for the security council resolution sends a signal to Netanyahu that there are indeed consequences for ignoring the advice of your best friend, let alone breaking the law. It might make the Israeli prime minister more amenable, and it would certainly send a signal to the Israeli electorate that Netanyahu had terminally alienated the White House.
And it would do more than any other single act to demonstrate respect for international law and restore the credibility of American diplomacy.