At the UN on Thursday, Egypt decided to withdraw from a Security Council vote the proposed resolution calling on Israel to “cease all settlement activities” in the West Bank – a resolution that if passed could prompt Arab nations to seek enforcement mechanisms, and provoke a security crisis for the region. The postponement of the vote is potentially indefinite.
This is unalloyed good news. Three comments on it (strike that, four):
1. Donald Trump has been given a lot of credit for making this happen. While that’s not unfair, I do think it might be a bit of an exaggeration. I believe his influence was a positive one; he came out with a brief, perfectly executed statement on the issue on Thursday morning, urging a U.S. veto if the resolution passed:
And there are multiple reports that Trump was part of the effort to get Egypt – which sponsored the resolution – to pull it from voting. The Reuters report (linked above) cites an unnamed diplomatic source as saying the Trump spoke to Egyptian President al-Sisi about it on the phone. According to CNN, Israel also asked Trump to appeal to the Obama White House to guarantee a veto.
CNN cited analysts characterizing it as “unprecedented” for Trump to comment publicly on the matter:
“It’s unprecedented that a President-elect would pronounce on a matter of US policy before he became president,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, “let alone say publicly that the administration should not vote for the resolution.”
But this theme in the news coverage overemphasizes U.S. politics, in my view, and obscures a systemic, geopolitical factor that was at least as important – and actually explains “unprecedented” actions.
2. Egypt and other regional nations (like Saudi Arabia and Jordan) have good reasons of their own to want to hold off on the resolution in question. Egypt may have sponsored this UN legislative effort, but there are more things happening than the American election, and a lot of them have happened in the Middle East in the last 12 months. Each of them makes the potential aftermath of the resolution more explosive.
Just to survey the major and most directly pertinent ones: Mahmoud Abbas and the PA are largely superannuated in the changing context of the Middle East. There’s no well-structured “Palestinian” political entity to rally round at this point.
The main thing keeping Abbas & Co viable was the mainstreaming effect of U.S. support – the potential it suggested for political credibility and responsible statehood. But U.S. support has no mainstreaming effect now. We have Obama to thank for that.
Egypt, meanwhile, is dealing with ISIS and other transnational groups all over the Sinai (besides internal Egyptian jihadis), and has to worry about Iranian-backed instigation as well.
The UN resolution would launch a feeding frenzy to define who benefits from a weakening of Israel in the West Bank. And that frenzy would be a daily earthquake for Egypt. It would paint a bigger target on Jordan’s back too, and Jordan is in no shape to handle that strain. The Saudis have their hands full with Yemen, and new worries with the encroachment of Iran into Iraq – now hundreds of miles closer to the Saudis’ remotest border. They don’t need another headache.
This settlements resolution would only make sense in the context of a strong America keeping the old, Pax Americana peace. That condition might have made its ramifications containable. But that condition is gone.