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US ‘non-veto’ threatens increasing isolation for Israel



On 25 March, the United States (US) abstained from and declined to exercise its veto power against a United Nations Security Council Resolution which explicitly called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. It also called for the release of all the hostages, but didn’t clearly link the two as previous resolutions had done.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that the US has refused to veto a Security Council Resolution against Israel to make a point. Barack Obama famously allowed Security Council Resolution 2334 against Israeli settlements to pass in December 2016. However, Israel wasn’t at war then, and that failure to veto was more academic. After this current resolution passed, the US administration characterised it as “non-binding”, which itself is debatable – international law is impossible to understand – and commentators referred to it as “high on symbolism and low on substance”. Added to this, clearly the US won’t allow the Security Council to pass any enforcement measures against Israel to back up this resolution, so why is everyone in Israel so concerned?

Israel isolated

Last week, both The Economist – “Israel alone” – and The Times of Israel – “Silver linings in an ongoing nightmare” – published articles detailing how isolated Israel has become on the international stage. The Economist described Israel as “deeply vulnerable and needing a better strategy”. The Times of Israel, although coming from a totally different angle, described the “extent to which the conflict has been widely misrepresented abroad; that 7 October has been airbrushed away; that Hamas’s misrepresentations are widely disseminated, including on issues as basic as its death-toll summations; and that its manifest abuse of hospitals and mosques as military bases is glossed over.” Taking this point further, even The Economist, traditionally no great supporter of Israel, in the article mentioned above, almost implored Israel to avoid “clumsy diplomacy” and “estrangement from the West”. The gist of its entire article stressed that Israel is facing its greatest challenges since the 1948 War of Independence due to its increasing international isolation.

US warning

With this background context, the non-veto by the US is a shot across the bow and a warning to Israel not to take the US’s support for granted. But although intended to be symbolic, it highlights the great risks to Israel if the relationship with its most important – and in many ways only – strategic ally ruptures. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has become increasingly estranged from US President Joe Biden due to his refusal to present a coherent picture for the “day after”, in other words what will happen in Gaza after the war ends. There’s also no agreement on what a campaign in Rafah would look like.

Although Israel is an independent and proud sovereign country and cannot just be expected to show subservience or obedience to the US, it’s an issue of vital national strategic importance that it has a positive and working relationship with the US and its sitting leadership. Only the US will veto future Security Council Resolutions against Israel, supply it with vital ammunition and hardware, and provide it with funds to purchase and develop its own armaments industry.

Don’t forget the north

In addition to the above, the low-level war in the north and its major consequences for the people of Israel shouldn’t be forgotten. An article on Reuters on 27 March, titled “Abandoned Israeli farms cling to life in evacuation zone” details how the forced evacuation of residents of the north has turned some of Israel’s most productive farming communities into ghost towns. It referred to Kibbutz Snir, which rears cows and chickens and grows avocados and some vegetables about 3km from the Lebanese border, and which is now hardly being looked after, as an example. It said Israel’s northern region accounts for a third of the country’s agricultural land, and about 73% of its domestic egg production concentrated in the Galilee and Golan regions. In fact, it went so far as to say that in February, the agricultural ministry said it would lift duties on imported eggs to meet the needs for Pesach, forecasting a drop in local production due in part to the security situation. It should never be forgotten that 100 000 Israelis have had to evacuate their homes in the north for six months now. This isn’t sustainable. Something has to give in the north.

Hope for the future

In spite of the challenges facing Israel, there’s still much to be positive about. Its people have proven to be patriotic and resilient during this war. As The Times of Israel so eruditely puts it, “somehow, this remarkable people of ours, hundreds of thousands of whom constitute its army, has managed to fight the war and maintain some semblance of what used to be normality”. This war will eventually end. That should lead to a process where the hostages are returned and Hamas is no longer in a position to threaten Israel. The big carrot that awaits Israel once that process unfolds is a normalisation deal with the Saudis, as well as potentially increased Gulf investment in the rebuilding of Gaza, and an Arab coalition force to assist in the security and policing of Gaza. That will lead to an overhaul and rejuvenation of the entire architecture of the Middle East, with Israel drawing nearer to the Sunni Arab countries in the region and the resultant ending of attempts to isolate it, all of which can only be to its benefit. However, this will require the leadership to be street smart, astute, and shrewd in how it manages the labyrinth of different international challenges that will arise. One hopes the current leadership is up to the task. In addition, there’s a long way to go before this potential end game is arrived at, and it’s by no means certain things will unfold in this way.

In spite of the difficult times Israel is facing, there are grounds for hope and a pathway to a more positive future. However, make no mistake, the road to that positive future is going to be extremely bumpy, and huge challenges await in the next few months. Bringing this war to a successful conclusion is still going to be a hugely tricky and complex exercise, given all the obstacles that remain in the path. Solving the problem in the north is going to be more difficult still, and could well lead to an even bigger war. However, Israel has faced and survived many dangerous perils in the past, and it will no doubt survive and get through this one as well. One can only hope that its leadership is alert to and quick to manage the major risks of increased international isolation.

  • Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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