One of the things for Israel to watch at the United Nations is the astonishing event that may unfold next month in respect of Cuba. A vote is coming up on a resolution condemning the United States for its trade embargo against the communist redoubt in the Caribbean. The resolution, introduced by Cuba, has come up annually for the past 23 years. Every year, the United States votes against the resolution. This year, however, the Obama administration is considering an abstention.
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That might be a first in the entire history of diplomacy. Imagine, say, an ambassador of Israel abstaining in a vote to condemn the Jewish state. Benny Avni of the New York Post likens what Obama is weighing to the moment in “Blazing Saddles” when Sheriff Bart threatens to shoot himself in the head to avoid being shot by the townsfolk.
Comedy, though, it’s not. The Associated Press quotes the administration’s own officials as suggesting that they are weighing the idea of an abstention on a resolution against America. Its sources do not suggest that an abstention is certain; merely that it is being weighed. “Merely considering an abstention,” the AP says, “is unprecedented.”
And it has a portent for Israel. This is because the Jewish state and America have lately been the only two countries voting against the condemnation of the American trade embargo with the Castros’ regime. Britain, France, Japan, the whole lot is against us. Not even the Republic of Palau is with America on this one. Just Israel.
So it’s conceivable that if and when the vote condemning America comes up next month, Israel will be the only vote in favor of the Yanks. Not even the Yanks will be with the Yanks. What an absurd situation. I’m not suggesting that Israel, too, abstain, or vote with Cuba. On the contrary, it’s delightful to think of Israel alone with America.
Think of it as the chance to say thank you to the U.S. Congress for standing with Israel against the Iran appeasement.
For it is Congress that is at center stage here. This is not one of those situations — like, say, the Jerusalem passport case — where the dispute was over which branch of the government, the president or the congress, has the constitutional power. The U.S. Constitution spells out no specifically enumerated power to issue passports.
In the case of international trade, by contrast, the constitution grants the power unambiguously to the Congress. That is in the parchment’s famous “commerce clause,” which says that Congress shall have the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.”
So under American law the embargo is not a matter of presidential discretion — nor is it even a Republican plot. The embargo was legislated in a series of laws. The major measures were signed by presidents John Kennedy and William "Bill" Clinton. It was Clinton who signed the most important law regarding ending the embargo, the Helms Burton Act.
It set the preconditions for any transition to normal relations with Cuba. They were specific, starting with the release of political prisoners, freedom of political activity, and free and fair elections. Cuba must allow “independent trade unions.” There must be a government that “does not include Fidel Castro or Raul Castro.”
No doubt it is frustrating U.S. President Barack Obama and other advocates of normal relations with Cuba, but Helms Burton is the law of the land. So an abstention on Cuba at the United Nations — like, for that matter, the approval in the UN Security Council of the Iran appeasement — would be a case of the Obama administration going to a foreign multilateral organization against the United States’ own Congress.
It’s always possible that once the administration weighs the issue, as the administration says it is doing, the president will decide to vote to defend itself against a resolution of condemnation. Its wavering, though, is already being marked in the political campaign, particularly by Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida whose long suit is foreign affairs.
Rubio says that an abstention would be “putting international popularity ahead of the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.” More broadly, the Cuba question throws into relief the prospect of an administration that is prepared to break not only with its past commitments but with America’s own legislature. That just couldn’t be more relevant for an ally like Israel.
Seth Lipsky, the founding editor of The Forward and a former foreign editor of The Wall Street Journal, is editor of The New York Sun.