The Pink Elephant in the Room

What makes a Palestinian intifada different from other Arab revolutions?  David Aronofsky, University of Montana General Counsel and adjunct faculty member in the Schools of Law and Education, asked this very provocative question during this year’s Sutton Colloquium. The Colloquium, which hosted a diverse group of panelists from around the country, came to a rather uncomfortable pause. After a minute or two, Lt. Colonel Rachel VanLandingham pointed to Professor Paul Williams’ tie (adorned with pink elephants) and announced, “There’s a pink elephant in this room.”

The pink elephant, of course, was Israel.

Israel and the United States share an intimate relationship. Since 1985, the United States has provided nearly $3 billion in grants annually to Israel.  Israel also enjoys widespread protection by the United States’ veto in the U.N Security Council, as well as the power America holds by threatening cuts in financial support to any satellite U.N agency that contemplates the thought of Palestinian statehood.

The pink elephant in the room

The pink elephant in the room

Much of this intimacy is codified in federal law. Following Palestine’s recent admission into the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for example, the Obama administration immediately halted payment of more than one-fifth of the agency’s total funding (a whopping $60 million).  Why? Because according to legislation passed during the 103rd meeting of Congress in 1994, the United States is prohibited from funding any U.N. agency that recognizes the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as being of the same standing as member states.  The administration enforced the law in this instance because Mahmoud Abbas, current chairman of the PLO, submitted the original request for UNESCO’s recognition of Palestine.

Why does federal law single out the PLO specifically from international recognition? The alienation may stem from the fact that the PLO used to be considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department until the Oslo Accords in 1994.  Congress very well may have decided to de-list the PLO as a terrorist organization but still wanted to ensure that it would never gain international recognition in the form of the Palestinian statehood. Interestingly enough, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party also has terrorist roots. Most recognizable of these roots is the Irgun, a paramilitary organization that was responsible for the infamous King David hotel bombing during the years of the British-Palestinian mandate.

President Obama has not been so keen to respect other federal and constitutional laws, however. This includes Western involvement in Libya. Arguably, American intervention in the recent NATO incursion in Libya was all but prohibited by the War Powers Resolution and constitutional provisions restricting the executive power of the president. Libyans are different from Palestinians in that they do not have their own Israel to deal with. But does President Obama have the authority to cherry pick which federal laws to enforce?

Assuming, arguendo, that American intervention in Libya was a mere military excursion supported by Resolution 1973, what, then, becomes of the U.S.-vetoed Security Council resolutions forcing Israel to comply with international law?  President Obama, to an extent, clarified this stance in his March address to the nation on U.S. intervention in Libya. He clarified that America’s responsibility to protect (“R2P”) is contingent upon her national interest.  He subsequently discussed the importance of democracy in the Middle East.

It appears that President Obama was asserting that democracy abroad is of national interest to the U.S., both in terms of ideology and security. This assertion works, for now, to tie the loose ends with its allegiance to Israel. After all, many peg the allegiance to Israel with the notion that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

Or is it?

Following the successful revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, it appears that Israel is not the sole democratic kid on the block anymore.

Moreover, Israel seems to be heading in the opposite direction: with a rising Arab-Israeli population, and what is becoming an unsustainable presence in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is fast-approaching the point where it will have to choose between being a legitimate democracy or a Jewish state.

Does President Obama’s pro-democracy stance also mean that Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans will also enjoy similar packages of foreign aid and Security Council protection? And if they do, what makes Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans so vastly different in their opposition to violence directed at their own people and their support of universal rights, than the Palestinians against the Israelis?

The International Court of Justice has made itself clear on Israel’s obligations to international law, a stance similarly taken in Resolution 1973. Perhaps the most famous of the Court’s proclamations is in its 2004 Advisory Opinion on the legality of Israel’s West Bank wall, where the Court stated: “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination  and its obligations under  international humanitarian  law and international human rights.”  Not surprisingly, Ariel Sharon reacted furiously and refused to comply.

Something is definitely amiss in this responsibility to protect doctrine that President Obama proposed. Nevertheless, it is more important now than ever that the United States take care of the pink elephant before it turns white.

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