Like all the best mistakes, it was done for the right reasons. Knowing that for once the US wouldn’t veto, the UN Security Council passed a resolution condemning settlement building in the occupied Palestinian Territories. The UK was no doubt keen to be with the consensus but we were wrong to back the Resolution. This time was different. Not because Israel has changed, nor the expansion of the settlements is exacerbating the efforts towards a settlement, but because the world has changed and so have we.
The Arab Spring showed that the Israel-Palestinian conflict doesn’t matter. This may sound harsh for a country generating more news than any people can reasonably be expected to cope with but the medieval mapmakers were wrong. The Holy Land isn’t the centre of the world. It isn’t even the centre of the region.
Damascenes and Cairenes know Israel isn’t the cause of the Middle East’s problems. Dictatorship, corruption, unresponsive government, call it what you will, destroy lives and none are caused by Israel or Palestine. The voices in the Arab Spring protests called for many things, from jobs to freedom, but nothing about Palestine. The Muslim Brotherhood, students and even Salafists who met in Tahrir Square demanded the downfall of the Mubarak regime. In the face of unemployment and kleptocracy, Israel was irrelevant.
Today in Syria, rebels are calling for a range of things from the death of Assad to the beginning of an Islamic caliphate. Again, Israel-Palestine isn’t even a sideshow. This is hardly surprising. Half a million Syrians have died in the civil war and millions more displaced yet Israel isn’t taking sides. That’s why the UN Resolution is a mistake. By magnifying one issue in the region at this time, the UN Security Council has lost the perspective needed to help deal with the problems facing the wider Arab world. Of course it’s true that the Oslo Process has been dead for many years now and that the two-state solution is in doubt and in part due to the settlement expansion programme. But it is also true that Israeli politicians and the media argue themselves about settlements and the peace process. It is all part of the vibrant Israeli democracy. But by using the dying days of the Obama administration to pass the Resolution the UN has done nothing to address the wider problems nor to move the Israeli-Palestinian process forward.
Instead, the UN has allowed those who want to divert attention in the region away from the real difficulties (in their own societies) to do just that and make Israel-Palestine the regional totem once more. The Resolution will hurt our allies and weaken those who have already taken a risk for peace. After everything that happened last year, why now in the final days of 2016? Why was it more pressing than other disputed territories such as Western Sahara, Kashmir or Tibet? It isn’t. It simply deflects attention for those most in need of a diversion. Nowhere is this clearer than in Damascus where an Israeli flag is painted on one of the streets. Every person who steps on it is supposedly joining the Assads in their ‘brave stand’ against the Zionist aggressor. This, in theory, unites the rulers and the ruled. It is, of course, complete rubbish.
To almost every Syrian, Israel doesn’t intrude on daily life, unlike the brutal oppression of Bashir al Assad’s regime. But just like political Islam, anti-Zionism gives regimes a glue to hold the state together glossing over the internal tensions, contradictions and violations of human rights and torture. Resolution 2334 reinforces this illusion. It ignores the democratic debate within Israel, it ignores the regional violence and pretends instead to address the key to regional instability. Given what is happening, the timing could barely be more ill-judged.
For the UK it is worse. Not just because Israel is an important ally whose intelligence and military technology has saved countless lives at home and on operations overseas. But because suggesting support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions strategy undermines our allies who, often under pressure from us, have taken huge risks to promote peace. Countries like Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have displayed courage in the face of domestic opposition and regional threats to make peace with Israel and to address wider regional issues. In backing the myth that this is all about Israel, we undermine their efforts and risk fuelling internal unrest against them.
Since voting to leave the European Union, the UK has needed a new grand strategy, one that promotes our interests and allows us to chart our own future. Resolution 2334 shows our foreign policy has not caught up. Backing an outgoing US administration, an anti-Zionist myth, and many dictators’ propaganda message doesn’t just undermine Israel and ignore recent tectonic change, it hurts our regional allies and weakens us. To write our own future we need to think more about the message our votes send and be prepared to stand against consensus. This time we got it wrong.